In Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, et al., 15-888-cv (2d. Cir. Mar. 17, 2016), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer and individual defendant on the question of individual liability based on a human resource professional’s exercise of control over the plaintiff’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights.

Background. When plaintiff Cathleen Graziadio attempted to return to work from FMLA leave to care for her sons, the director of Human Resources refused to allow her return until she provided new documentation supporting her leave. Over several weeks, Graziadio tried to determine how to remedy the deficiencies in her FMLA paperwork and return to work, but the director of Human Resources failed to provide a meaningful response. According to Graziadio, communications broke down as a result of the director of Human Resources and she was terminated for job abandonment. Graziadio subsequently sued for interference and retaliation under the FMLA and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Control Over FMLA Rights Is Key. Under the FMLA, an individual may be held liable if he or she is considered an “employer,” defined as “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” To determine whether an individual is an “employer” under this provision, the Second Circuit concluded that the economic-reality test used to analyze whether an individual is an “employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act should also be applied to the FMLA.

Under this test, the question is whether the individual “controlled in whole or in part plaintiff’s rights under the FMLA.” Factors include whether the individual (1) had the power to hire and fire employees, (2) supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment, (3) determined the rate and method of payment, and (4) maintained employment records.

HR Director May Be Held Liable as “Employer.” While the vice president held the formal termination authority, the court declared that the director of Human Resources “played an important role in the decision to fire Graziadio.” In addition to the handling of the leave dispute, the termination was a joint decision between the director of Human Resources and the vice president. The court found that the director of Human Resources sufficiently controlled Graziadio’s FMLA rights because she (1) reviewed Graziadio’s FMLA paperwork, (2) determined its adequacy, (3) controlled Graziadio’s ability to return to work and under what conditions, and (4) sent Graziadio nearly every communication regarding leave and employment, including the termination letter.

Given these facts, the Second Circuit decided that “a rational jury could find, under the totality of the circumstances” that the director of Human Resources “exercised sufficient control over Graziadio’s employment to be subject to liability under the FMLA.”

The Bottom Line. This case serves a reminder to human resource professionals regarding the importance of observing FMLA requirements. Employers should proactively train their employees on FMLA compliance, educate their employees about personal liability under the FMLA, and seek legal counsel prior to terminating employees who take FMLA leave.