HR Directors may be held personally liable under the Family and Medical Leave Act

Recently, a United States Appellate Court held that a human resources supervisor could be personally liable when an employee was improperly denied her protections under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  The plaintiff took leave on two separate occasions, first to care for her son who was suffering from diabetes, and a few weeks later to care for her second son who broke his leg.
During her second leave, the employer, and specifically the director of human resources at the employer, took issue with some of the paperwork which supported the plaintiff’s leave.  The employer refused to allow the plaintiff to return to work until she provided new documentation.  Communications broke down, and plaintiff left her job.  She sued her former employer and the director of human resources.  The trial court dismissed the case.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the trial court was wrong and that the case against the human resources director could continue. An individual may be held personally liable under the FMLA if she is an “employer” which the statute defines to include “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.”
Relying on the interpretation of a similar definition found in the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Court reasoned that an individual may be held personally responsible for FMLA violations if that individual “possessed the power to control the worker[ ] in question, with an eye to the ‘economic reality’ presented by the facts of each case.”
The Court considered factors including whether the individual (1) had the power to hire and fire employees, (2) supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment, (3) determined the rate and method of payment, and (4) maintained employment records.
In the end, the Court of Appeals determined there were too many outstanding factual questions about the extent of control the human resources director exercised for the trial court to dismiss the case.  It sent the case back for further proceedings.  The take home message is that individuals and employers may be held liable if your company violates the FMLA or FLSA.  The best course of action is to keep your human resources department informed of their responsibilities and ensure they receive proper training on updates to federal employment laws.
The case is Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, Docket No. 15-888-cv in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.