Second Circuit Holds Human Resources Director May Be Individually Liable Under FMLA

Employers should be aware that the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has held, in Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, that supervising employees can be held individually liable under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) for retaliation and interference with an employee’s FMLA rights. The Court also formally adopted standards for FMLA interference claims and for claims brought pursuant to the associational discrimination provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Background

The plaintiff, Cathleen Graziadio, was a Payroll Administrator at the Culinary Institute of America (“CIA”). At issue in Graziadio’s lawsuit were two FMLA leaves – one to care for a son with diabetes, and the second to care for another son who fractured his leg and required surgery. In connection with her first FMLA leave, Graziadio submitted a medical certification to the CIA without incident. When Graziadio attempted to return to work and use intermittent FMLA leave, CIA Human Resources Director, Shayan Garrioch, informed Graziadio that she needed to submit an updated certification to support the intermittent leave to care for her son with diabetes, as well an initial certification to support FMLA leave to care for her son suffering from a leg injury. Graziadio responded with multiple emails and phone calls to Garrioch, seeking clarification as to exactly what paperwork was needed and making clear her desire to return to work. Instead of providing specific instructions, Garrioch simply requested “additional paperwork,” prompting Graziadio to make repeated requests for clarification as to what specific paperwork was required. Although Garrioch ignored Graziadio’s request for clarification, Graziadio submitted a new FMLA certification, which went unacknowledged. Eventually, communications between Garrioch and Graziadio broke down completely and Graziadio was terminated for job abandonment.

Graziadio filed suit in the Southern District of New York against CIA and Garrioch, alleging interference with FMLA leave, FMLA retaliation, and associational discrimination under the ADA. The district court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed all claims.

The Second Circuit’s Opinion

On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal of Graziadio’s FMLA interference and retaliation claims and remanded to the lower court. First, applying the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) test for the meaning of “employer” to the FMLA, the Court concluded that a rational jury could find that Garrioch exercised sufficient control over Graziadio’s employment to be considered an “employer” subject to liability under the FMLA. In vacating the district court’s dismissal of the FMLA claims against Garrioch individually, the Court reasoned that Garrioch, although not the ultimate decision maker, played an important role in the decision to terminate Graziadio’s employment and exercised control over her schedule with respect to her return from FMLA leave thereby “control[ing] plaintiff’s rights under the FMLA.”

Next, the Court reinstated Graziadio’s FMLA interference claim, adopting the prima facie standard for a claim of interference with FMLA rights previously used by district courts within the Second Circuit. The Court held that to prevail on a claim of interference with FMLA rights “a plaintiff must establish: 1) that she is an eligible employee under the FMLA; 2) that the defendant is an employer as defined by the FMLA; 3) that she was entitled to take leave under the FMLA; 4) that she gave notice to the defendant of her intention to take leave; and 5) that she was denied benefits to which she was entitled under the FMLA. Applying this standard, the Court found that Graziadio raised questions of material fact regarding leave to care for both sons and “whether she took intermittent leave subsequent to her return or work and whether any such intermittent leave was approved.”

The Court also found genuine issues of material fact sufficient to reinstate Graziadio’s FMLA retaliation claim. The panel reasoned that an employer is responsible for giving notice to an employee seeking FMLA leave each time a certification is required and that a “vague request for ‘paperwork’” hardly sufficed. The Court noted that “Garrioch studiously avoided responding to any of Graziadio’s pleas for clarification on ‘what [paperwork] you would specifically like me to obtain’ . . . And such unresponsiveness may itself run afoul of the FMLA’s explicit requirement that employers ‘responsively answer questions from employees concerning their rights and responsibilities under the FMLA,’ including, inter alia, their obligations regarding medical certification, 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(c)(5)—a violation that could, perhaps, independently warrant a jury finding in favor of Graziadio.”

Finally, in affirming the district court’s dismissal of Graziadio’s ADA associational discrimination claim, the Second Circuit adopted a formal standard to govern the “rarely litigated” claim. The panel held that:

. . . to sustain an “associational discrimination” claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must first make out a prima facie case by establishing: 1) that she was qualified for the job at the time of an adverse employment action; 2) that she was subjected to adverse employment action; 3) that she was known at the time to have a relative or associate with a disability; and 4) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances raising a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative or associate was a determining factor in the employer’s decision.

Taking guidance from the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Larimer v. International Business Machines Corp., the Court held that Graziadio did not present evidence of associational discrimination under the ADA because she was not fired for suspected distraction or concern over her son’s diabetes.

Conclusion

The Graziadio case highlights an employer’s duty to provide employees with specific information regarding their obligations under the FMLA, including in connection with medical certifications, and to respond to employee requests for clarification as to same. And liability for breaches of this duty may extend to human resources personnel or others responsible for implementing an employer’s FMLA obligations.

For questions regarding this decision, or FMLA claims generally, please feel free to contact an attorney in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.

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