My colleagues will often joke of my mildly-paranoid nature when giving legal advice. Although not an untrue assessment, such paranoia is not unfounded, and decisions such as the Second Circuit’s decision several days ago in Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, No. 15-888-cv (2d Cir. Mar. 17, 2016) reaffirm for me that a healthy level of paranoia can be helpful in this profession.
In Graziadio, the Second Circuit revived several claims brought by a former employee against the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) that it violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the federal law covering unpaid leaves of absence for medical and family care. In sum, communications broke down between CIA and the Plaintiff after multiple discussions over several months regarding her requests for FMLA protected leave to care for her two children, ultimately resulting in her termination for job abandonment. The Graziadio decision first serves to reaffirm what many human resources professionals already know; the FMLA’s regulations are technical, unforgiving, and to be followed to the letter in order to avoid a potential FMLA interference and/or retaliation claim. The court delves deep into the facts presented to conduct a detailed analysis of whether each of CIA’s multiple requests for meetings, medical certifications, responsive communications, and a scheduled return to work date were in accordance with and satisfied the FMLA’s regulations. Ultimately, the court found CIA’s actions were deficient under the statute, or at least required an expensive trial.
This broad overview of the FMLA’s technical requirements is scary enough. However, the decision in Graziadio is particularly notable because, for the first time, the Second Circuit (which oversees all federal courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) explored the contours of individual liability under the FMLA. The Graziadio court found that the FMLA mirrors the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which in many aspects tends to be one of the broadest statutes around, with respect to individual liability and held that the human resources director involved could be found personally liable under the statute.
The Second Circuit analyzed the “economic reality” factors commonly reviewed in FLSA cases and found that, although traditional hire and fire authority rested with a vice president at CIA, the human resources director had been given effective control over the plaintiff’s employment by overseeing her FMLA leave requests. The human resources director also arguably exercised control over the Plaintiff’s schedule and conditions of employment by controlling the terms of her FMLA leave, handling all leave related communications, and ultimately communicating her termination. Therefore, the human resources director could be held individually liable given this level of control.
The Graziadio decision is a great refresher on the common pitfalls lurking under the FMLA. In addition, it is a clear reminder to human resources professionals to proceed with caution, because a mishandled FMLA leave request could put you personally on the hook even if the mistake was an honest one. Taking a step back and thoroughly analyzing any FMLA or other leave request is a necessity.
Moreover, please also remember that in addition to the FMLA, various state and local leave laws may also apply, and these statutes can be much more protective of an employee’s ability to take unpaid (or even paid) leave. As a result, consultation with a local attorney who specializes in employment law is always advised.