Individual Liability for Supervisors under the FMLA

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In Haybarger v. Lawrence County Adult Prob. & Parole, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recognized that a supervisor may be held individually liable for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals sets legal precedent for the federal courts in New Jersey.

In this case, the plaintiff, Debra Haybarger, worked as an office manager for the defendant, Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole. During the course of her employment with the public agency, a combination of Type II diabetes, heart disease, and kidney problems forced her to miss work frequently to seek medical attention.

Haybarger contended that her supervisor repeatedly "expressed dissatisfaction with her absences," which he noted in her annual performance evaluations and in conversations. Six months following the supervisor's decision to discipline Haybarger for her "conduct, work ethic, and behavior," Her employment was terminated.

Haybarger filed suit alleging, among other things, violations of the FMLA, including suing the supervisor in his individual capacity. On appeal, the Third Circuit held that the FMLA permits individual liability for supervisors.

In finding that individuals can be personally liable for FMLA violations, the Third Circuit looked to the text of the statute – which covers "any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer" and concluded "that liability for FMLA violations may be imposed upon an individual person who would not otherwise be regarded as the plaintiff's employer." The Third Circuit also analyzed the U.S. Department of Labor's implementing regulations, which state that employers "include any person acting, directly or indirectly, in the interest of a covered employer to any of the employees of the employer, any successor in interest of a covered employer, and any public agency." The Third Circuit also noted that the regulations provide that "individuals such as corporate officers 'acting in the interest of an employer' are individually liable for any violations of the requirements of the FMLA."

In determining whether an individual supervisor – or an HR Manager for that matter – can be liable for an FMLA violation, courts will now look at whether the individual making a recommendation or decision  - in this case the recommendation to terminate Haybarger’s employment -  is an agent of the employer, whether he or she acting on behalf of, or in the interest, of the employer at the time the recommendation or decision was made.  Some factors to consider would be whether the supervisor or HR Manager 1) had the power to hire and fire the employee, (2) supervised and controlled the employee’s work schedules or conditions of employment, (3) determined the rate and method of payment, and (4) maintained employment records.