In a recently published decision the influential Second Circuit Court of Appeals (with jurisdiction over the states of New York, Connecticut and Vermont) ruled that in the case of Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, the employer’s Director of Human Resources could be found personally liable for alleged violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Under the FMLA, individual liability may be imposed on an individual only if that individual is found to be an “employer” within the meaning of the Act. In this case, the employee alleged that the HR Director was so intimately involved in the decision-making process that led to her termination after she asserted rights under the FMLA that the Director should be found jointly liable with the employer for the alleged violations of her FMLA rights.
The employee, in this case, had requested FMLA leave to care for two of her children who were experiencing various medical problems. The Court recounted a series of email correspondence between the employee and the HR Director which indicated that the Director was, under various legal and factual tests examined, intimately involved in the decision-making FMLA process and that she was the one who effectively recommended the termination of the employee for non-compliance with certain FMLA informational requests.
In effect, the Court utilized the same “economic realities” test to ascertain possible individual liability that courts use in assessing such liability under the federal wage/hour law, the Fair Labor Standards Act. While the Court did not rule at this stage of the case that the HR Director was individually liable for FMLA violations (this will be determined in a trial at the federal District Court level), it sent a strong signal that under certain facts and circumstances HR personnel, or any other executive/manager with responsibilities for administering the company’s FMLA benefits, may face personal liability for decisions regarding employees who have applied for such benefits if such decisions are not well founded under the law.
Proactively companies need to train anyone who has decision-making authority regarding an employee’s request for FMLA leave. Such training is specific from both a substantive and procedural standpoint. Our labor/employment attorneys at Offit Kurman are well equipped to provide such training to individuals or groups of supervisors/managers who regularly are involved in the FMLA process.