Individual liability under the FMLA
A recent case out of the Second Circuit demonstrates the scope of individual liability under the FMLA. In Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, et al., No. 15-888-cv (2d Cir. Mar. 17, 2016), a three-judge panel revived FMLA claims against a human resources director made by Cathleen Graziadio, who claims she was wrongly fired from the Culinary Institute after it took issue with her leave to care for two ailing sons.
The human resources director in this case made it very difficult for Ms. Graziadio to return to work, claiming that Ms. Graziadio had not submitted “sufficient” medical paperwork to document the need for her FMLA leave. This dispute deteriorated into protracted email correspondence where the human resources director eventually refused to communicate via email and then demanded an in-person meeting. Despite separate email correspondence regarding scheduling the meeting, the meeting was never scheduled. Ms. Graziadio obtained counsel, and counsel for the Culinary Institute and the employee exchanged correspondence regarding the FMLA paperwork. Before responding to the last request for paperwork, Ms. Graziadio was fired for job abandonment.
The panel noted that an individual can only be liable under the FMLA if they are an “employer,” which the panel defined as “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of [its] employees.” In this circumstance, the panel determined that the human resources director could satisfy this criterion by retaining the ability to control Ms. Graziadio’s work schedule as it related to leave. Notably, the panel found that even though the human resources director did not exercise independent authority to hire or fire, her participation in the decision was sufficient to make her an “employer” under the FMLA.
In light of this decision employers should be mindful of their treatment of employees seeking leave and avoid creating undue obstacles to obtaining leave – such actions could result in liability to the employer and the individual decision-maker.