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HR Directors May be Individually Liable Under the FMLA

By Adam B. Merrill

Human resources employees might assume they cannot be held individually liable for actions taken within the scope of their employment. A recent decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, however, calls this assumption into question, at least with respect to the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). In Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, decided on March 17, 2016, the court found that an HR director can be individually liable under the FMLA under certain circumstances.

In June 2012, while working for Culinary Institute of America (“Culinary”), Cathleen Graziadio requested and took leave under the FMLA to care for her son who was suffering from diabetes. As required under the FMLA, she submitted a medical certification supporting her need for leave to care for him. Then, as she was preparing to return to work, her other son fractured his leg, which necessitated a second leave of absence for Graziadio. 

During her second leave of absence, Graziadio requested that she be allowed to return to work on a reduced, three-day week schedule for a few months. It was at this point that Shaynan Garrioch, Culinary’s Director of HR, got involved. She sent Graziadio a letter stating that Graziadio’s FMLA paperwork did not justify her absences from the workplace and that she needed to provide updated paperwork or she would not be allowed to return to work. Although Graziadio made repeated attempts to determine how she could remedy the deficiency in her paperwork, Garrioch merely reiterated the deficiencies in her documentation. Attempts to coordinate a meeting between Garrioch and Graziadio to discuss Graziadio’s return to work also failed. Ultimately, Culinary terminated Graziadio for abandoning her position.

Graziadio filed suit in district court, bringing claims against the company and against Garrioch individually for FMLA interference and retaliation. The court granted summary judgment in favor of Garrioch, finding that she was not an “employer” under the FMLA, and, therefore, could not be held individually liable.

Not so fast, according to the Second Circuit, which found that Garrioch could be classified as an “employer” under the FMLA based on the economic-realities test if she possessed the power to control, in whole or in part, the worker’s rights under the FMLA. The Second Circuit concluded that “a rational trier of fact could find that Garrioch was an ‘employer’ in economic reality and under the FMLA.” Consequently, it vacated the district court’s dismissal of FMLA claims against Garrioch and remanded the case for further proceeding consistent with its opinion.

HR directors should be vigilant when complying with the requirements of the FMLA so as to avoid exposure to individual liability. This warning also extends to supervisors, managers, and others who possess the power to control a worker’s FMLA rights.