The Court of Appeals has issued its most definitive case under the Family and Medical Leave Act in years, primarily reaching two holdings: individual supervisors may be held liable under the Act, and also outlining the contours of an FMLA interference claim.
The case is Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, decided on March 17. In this post, I will talk about the individual liability portion of the case. In a few days, you will read about the other holdings. Plaintiff was a Payroll Administrator for CIA. When, in June 2012, her 17 year old son Vincent was hospitalized with diabetes, plaintiff asked her supervisor, Gardella, for permission to care for him. Later in June, plaintiff's other son, TJ, broke his leg. Plaintiff asked Gardella for permission to miss work, and Gardella ran it by HR Director Garrioch. That is when things got difficult and convoluted. From plaintiff's perspective, she got the run-around and otherwise blown off when she tried to clarify when to return to work, repeatedly asking management for the right FMLA paperwork. CIA told plaintiff it did not have the proper information from her to continue the FMLA leave. Plaintiff also tried without success to schedule a meeting with management about these issues. Plaintiff then hired a lawyer who tried to iron out these issues with CIA, which insisted that plaintiff had not provided the right information for FMLA leave. She was eventually fired for abandoning her position.Of course, plaintiff said she did not abandon her position and that, instead, management had not properly recognized her FMLA leave at the time.
Every lawsuit has a bad guy, even if the statute does not provide for individual liability. Plaintiff sued CIA, and Garrioch under the FMLA. The Second Circuit (Calabresi, Lynch and Lohier) decides for the first time that plaintiff can sue the individual defendant personally, citing cases from around the country and district courts in the Second Circuit. The legal standard the Court devises draws from the FLSA's "economic reality" test, which determines whether the defendant had the power to hire and fire, supervised and controlled employees, determined salaries and maintained employment records.
Under this test, Garrioch was an "employer" under the FMLA because she played a substantial role in plaintiff's termination, even if that decision formally rested with someone else. Garrioch also exercised control over plaintiff's employment, at least with respect to her FMLA leave. Here's the wrap-up on this issue:
on the overarching question of whether Garrioch “controlled plaintiff’s rights under the FMLA,” there seems to be ample evidence to support the conclusion that she did: deposition testimony and email exchanges demonstrate a) that Garrioch reviewed Graziadio’s FMLA paperwork, b) that she determined its adequacy, c) that she controlled Graziadio’s ability to return to work and under what conditions, and d) that she sent Graziadio nearly every communication regarding her leave and employment (including the letter ultimately communicating her termination). Indeed, Garrioch specifically instructed Gardella and Maffia that they were not to communicate with Graziadio and that Garrioch alone would handle Graziadio’s leave dispute and return to work.
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Stephen Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in Orange County, N.Y. He has briefed or argued more than 200 appeals in the state and federal courts.