A recent case from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals should remind HR Directors (and supervisors) to be particularly vigilant in handling employee FMLA leaves of absence. In Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, the appellate court reversed a trial court victory for the employer and the two individual supervisors (one of whom was the HR Director) who were sued for alleged FMLA violations of interference with and retaliation for taking FMLA leave. While the facts, if true, suggest that the Director of Human Resources acted relatively cavalierly with respect to the employee’s repeated requests for FMLA forms and clarification about what documents the employer required to approve her leave of absence, the case does not break new ground on the issues of individual supervisory liability under the FMLA (although the case may be the first time the Second Circuit dealt with the question). It is well-established in the Fifth Circuit (the federal court of appeals covering Texas appeals) that individual managers or supervisors who participate in FLSA violations can be sued and held individually liable for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Because the FMLA’s definition of employer is the same as in the FLSA and not the definition found in Title VII, it is not surprising that the Second Circuit joined other circuit courts concluding that individual managers or supervisors acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer with respect to its employee may also be deemed employers subject to suit under the FMLA.
The case is, however, an important reminder that HR generalists, managers and directors (those who routinely administer the leave of absence programs of employers) can and are often sued along with the company when an FMLA claim is asserted and should therefore process employee leaves with extreme care. Documentation of efforts to obtain FMLA documentation from employees along with summaries of the communications had with those employees can be critical in defending the company and individual human resource employees from FMLA suits.
A full copy of the Second Circuit’s opinion in Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America is available here.