The Individual Liability You Never Knew You Had: Second Circuit Rules HR Directors May Be Liable for FMLA Violations

HR Directors, Beware: Your role in terminating employees may expose you to individual liability under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, et al., Graziadio, a Payroll Administrator, took a three-week leave pursuant to the FMLA to care for her son suffering from diabetes, followed immediately by a second leave to care for her other son, who had broken his leg.  After Graziadio submitted the required paperwork, she heard from neither her supervisor nor the HR Director. When Graziadio tried to return work, the Culinary Institute required “additional paperwork” to justify her absence.  Graziadio was notified that she had seven days to submit the paperwork but was not provided any specific detail about what paperwork was required.  Graziadio then retained an attorney. Prior to submitting the “additional paperwork”, Graziadio was informed that she was terminated on the basis of job abandonment and failure to comply with the FMLA. Graziadio thereafter brought suit alleging claims based on interference with her FMLA leave, retaliation and associational discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against the Culinary Institute, the HR Director and another supervisor.  The Southern District of New York granted the Culinary Institute’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the complaint against the individual defendants.

On appeal, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the Culinary Institute’s HR Director can be individually liable under the FMLA.  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.” Applying the “economic-reality test,” the Second Circuit held that individual liability can be found when the alleged employer (1) has the power to hire and fire employees; (2) supervises and controls the employee work schedules or conditions of employment; (3) determines the rate and method of payment; and (4) maintains employment records. The Second Circuit further noted that in the FMLA context, the economic reality of employment relationships exists if the putative employer controls in whole or in part the plaintiff’s rights under the FMLA.

While the Second Circuit found that the Culinary Institute’s Vice President held ultimate termination authority, it also found that its HR Director played a key role in terminating Graziadio.  The HR Director admitted Graziadio’s termination was a joint decision between her and the Culinary Institute’s Vice President. The Vice President also admitted to directing the HR Director to handle the dispute with Graziadio, rather than conducting an independent investigation. The Second Circuit found that sufficient evidence existed that the HR Director controlled Graziadio’s rights under the FMLA through her review of Graziadio’s paperwork, controlled Graziadio’s return ability to return to work and under what conditions, and was responsible for sending nearly all communication regarding Graziadio’s return to work after FMLA leave. Moreover, the HR Director instructed other human resources and payroll employees to refrain from communicating with Graziadio. Based on the totality of the facts, the Second Circuit found that the HR Director was an “employer” and could therefore be held individually liable for violations of the FMLA.

This decision serves as a chilling reminder that HR Directors, especially in the Second Circuit, need to be vigilant in complying with the requirements of the FMLA, mindful of their role in administering FMLA leave and tread cautiously when terminating employees.  Employers should also provide routine and updated training on FMLA leave administration and seek legal counsel prior to terminating employees who take FMLA leave in order to minimize exposure and the likelihood of individual liability.

For more information regarding FMLA procedures and best practices to mitigate liability, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.