Second Circuit Rules HR Director Can Be Held Personally Liable Under FMLA

Nicholas Fortuna, March 23, 2016

On March 16, 2016 the Second Circuit ruled that the human resources director of The Culinary Institute of America could be held personally liable for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) violations. The court found that the human resources director had enough control over the plaintiff’s job and sufficient input into the decision to fire the plaintiff to be considered an “employer” under the statute.

The plaintiff, Cathleen Graziadio, a payroll administrator at The Culinary Institute of America, was fired shortly after she took leave to provide care for her ailing sons.

Graziado’s seventeen-year-old son was hospitalized with previously undiagnosed Type I diabetes. She informed her supervisor that she would need to take time off from work to care for him. Graziadio sought to have her absence covered by FMLA. Three weeks later, Graziadio’s twelve-year-old son fractured his leg playing basketball and underwent surgery for the injury. Again, Graziadio promptly notified her supervisor that she would need immediate leave to care for her son.

Graziadio made numerous attempts to work with the Director of Human Resources to find out what was needed to document her FMLA leave and gain approval to return to work. The responses Graziadio received were ambiguous and frustrating. Rather than instructing the plaintiff as to what documents were needed to support her FMLA leave and notifying her when she could return to work, the Director of Human Resources recommended that the plaintiff be fired. Acting on the recommendation, the president of The Culinary Institute of America fired the plaintiff.

The plaintiff sued and sought to have the Director of Human Resources held personally liable for FMLA violations. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court finding that Graziadio presented sufficient evidence to defeat summary judgment on her claims under the FMLA.

An individual may be held liable under the FMLA only if she is considered an “employer” under the statute. An employer is defined under the statute as “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” The Second Circuit followed other circuit courts and determined that an “employer” under the FMLA should be evaluated as it is under Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Second Circuit, for the first time, applied the economic-reality test used under the FLSA to determine individual liability under the FMLA.

Under the economic-reality test, the court looks to see if the alleged individual-supervisor possessed the power to control the worker. The factors considered include whether the alleged individual-supervisor (1) had the power to hire and fire the 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.

Graziadio presented sufficient evidence that the Director of Human Resources exercised control over her schedule and conditions of employment with respect to her return from FMLA leave and her rights under the FMLA. The Director also had substantial input in deciding that the plaintiff should be fired.

To prevail on a claim of interference with FMLA rights, the court stated that a plaintiff must establish: (1) that she is an eligible employee under FMLA; (2) that the defendant is an employer as defined by FMLA; (3) that she was entitled to take leave under the FMLA; (4) that she gave notice to the defendant of her intention to take leave; and (5) that she was denied benefits to which she was entitled under FMLA.

Graziadio presented enough evidence on each of these factors to allow her to pursue her claim of individual liability on behalf of the Director of Human Resources under the economic-reality test that the Director interfered with her FMLA rights. The case was remanded back to the district court to allow the plaintiff to pursue her claims of individual liability under FMLA.


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