When an employee is unfairly treated with respect to a leave request under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the resulting legal action is usually directed at the employer. According to a recent decision from the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeal, the employer’s human resources director may also be a party to the lawsuit.
In Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, the plaintiff – an employee who was terminated after taking time off to care for her two ill children – argued that the defendant’s HR director exercised significant control over the plaintiff’s job and had input into whether or not to fire the employee. Because of this, the plaintiff argued the HR director could be seen as an “employer” who could be individually liable under the FMLA.
According to the facts of the case, the plaintiff took a formal FMLA from her job at Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to care for a son who had been hospitalized for Type 1 diabetes, and several weeks later, took additional time after her other son suffered a broken leg. When she returned to work, she requested a reduced work schedule. At that point, the CIA’s HR director disputed the validity of the employee’s leave and refused to allow her to return to work until she provided further documentation. Communications between the two eventually broke down and the employee was fired for abandoning her job.
The employee sued the CIA, the HR director, and her supervisor, claiming violations of the FMLA. In 2015, the trial court dismissed the claim against the HR director, finding she did not qualify as an “employer” under the FMLA. The employee appealed that decision to the Second Circuit.
In its ruling, the Second Circuit revived the FMLA claim against the HR director because she functioned as an employer. The court noted that, under the FMLA, an “employer” is defined as “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer” in dealings with employees. In examining the HR director’s actions, the panel noted she “appears to have played an important role in the decision to fire” the employee and therefore “exercised sufficient control” over her employment to be considered an “employer.” As a result, the panel found the former employee’s FMLA claim against the HR director individually has enough grounds to go to trial.
This recent decision makes it clear that HR directors and other corporate executives can be held individually liable if their actions violate provisions of the FMLA. It is a substantial victory for all employees who have faced reprisals and other adverse situations for taking the leave that the law entitles them to take.