Court illustrates how HR pros can be personally liable for FMLA blunders

Heads up: The stakes have been raised on FMLA compliance for human resources professionals.  

That’s because an appeals court not only ruled that HR pros could be personally liable for FMLA violations, it also offered employees a simple blueprint for disgruntled workers to make such claims.

Took aim at HR director

Understanding why the court ruled the way it did will go a long way toward helping you and your company avoid falling victim to a similar fate.

The case was Graziado v. Culinary Institute of America, Garrioch. Garrioch was the HR director.

Here’s some background: When Cathleen Graziado, a payroll worker for Culinary Institute of America (CIA), took FMLA leave to care for her sons, the company questioned the validity of that leave.

In the communication that followed, the director of HR, Shaynan Garrioch, said Graziado’s documentation wasn’t sufficient. The company then set a deadline for Graziado to submit the proper documentation but, when she failed to do so, she was fired.

Following her termination, Graziado filed an FMLA interference and retaliation suit against CIA as well as Garrioch.

In its attempt to get the suit dismissed, CIA’s attorneys argued that Garrioch wasn’t an employer under the FMLA and couldn’t be held individually liable in the suit.

This argument seemed like a no-brainer, and a lower court agreed and dismissed this and the rest of Graziado’s claims.

FLSA tie-in

But on appeal, a court disagreed and sent the case to trial. What the appeals court said about the definition of employer is especially worrisome for HR and benefits pros.

In regards to the HR director’s individual liability, the court ruled the FMLA’s definition of “employer” – defined in the law as one who “acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer” – basically mirrors the definition under the FLSA.

In fact, the FMLA was initially adopted as an amendment to the FLSA. Because of these factors, the court said the test used to evaluate employers under the FLSA should be applied to FMLA cases, too.

So the court applied the FLSA’s control or “economic reality” test to the claim CIA’s director of HR was an employer and found two key reasons to support that claim:

  1. The director of HR controlled Graziado’s schedule and conditions of employment, and
  2. She had the power to fire Graziado.

Result: There was plenty of evidence the director of HR controlled Graziado’s FMLA rights from an employer capacity. Therefore, she could be personally liable for FMLA violations.

Doublecheck everything

The idea of HR and benefits pros being personally liable for FMLA issues is particularly alarming when you consider how often courts hand down pro-employee FMLA verdicts.

This ruling is yet another reason to doublecheck all FMLA decisions to ensure compliance – especially those involving termination – and always try to err on the side of caution.

In addition, employers may want to consider ramping up their FMLA training to stay safe.

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