Second Circuit Holds HR Managers Can Be Personally Liable In FMLA Retaliation Claims

Generally speaking, the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) (29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.) allows employees to take leave from their employment to care for family members under a variety of circumstances.  This case addresses an employee who was allegedly terminated for failing to meet the documentary requirements of the FMLA, and her subsequent claim against her former employer, supervisor, and the company's HR director.

On June 6, 2012, Plaintiff informed her supervisor she would be taking leave to care for her hospitalized son, and requested that the employee who processed FMLA documentation to send her the necessary paperwork.  Plaintiff returned to work on June 18, 2012, and submitted medical certification for her need to leave on or about June 27, 2012.  That same day, Plaintiff’s other son broke his leg and underwent surgery. Plaintiff again informed her manager she would be taking leave and expected to return on July 9, “at least part time.” On July 9, Plaintiff’s supervisor asked for an update, and Plaintiff responded that she would need to work a reduced, three-day week schedule until mid-to-late August, and could start on July 12. Plaintiff also asked if she needed to provide “any further documentation.” At this point, the supervisor contacted the HR director for advice.  On July 17, the HR director informed Plaintiff her current documentation was insufficient, giving her one week to update it, but did not answer Plaintiff’s emails seeking clarification on what “paperwork” was needed.  Finally, the HR director said that an in-person needing was necessary, yet despite claiming to be “available whenever,” refused to agree to any specific dates Plaintiff proposed.  In August, Plaintiff hired an attorney, who was told the company’s position was “it was not the employer's obligation to explain what was missing from the paperwork,” but the employee’s responsibility to comply with the statute.  On September 11, 2012, Plaintiff was informed that her employment had been terminated for abandoning her position, claiming that she had been told “to contact your supervisor to arrange a return to work date․ Based on the fact that you have not contacted your supervisor to arrange to return to work as of the date of this letter, it is obvious to us that you do not want to return to work.” 

Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against the company, her supervisor, and the HR director for interference with FMLA leave, and FMLA retaliation.  The District Court granted summary judgment to the Defendants on all claims, holding (1) the supervisor and HR director were not an “employer” subject to individual liability under the FMLA, (2) Plaintiff could not sustain FMLA interference because she had not been denied leave to care for her older son, and, having failed to submit a medical certification form, had no entitlement to care for the younger son, and (3) Defendants offered legitimate reasons to terminate Plaintiff and Plaintiff had not demonstrated these reasons were pre-textual.  Plaintiff appealed, and the Second Circuit vacated the grant of summary judgment on the FMLA claims.

Our next post will look at the Second Circuit’s reasoning.  The case is Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, 817 F.3d 415 (2d Cir. 2016).

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