Third Circuit Court of Appeals Holds That Supervisors May Be Subject to Individual Liability Under the FMLA

March 29, 2012

By: Subhash Viswanathan

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently held, in Haybarger v. Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole, that supervisors may be subject to individual liability under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA").  Although this Third Circuit decision is not binding on U.S. District Courts in New York or the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the decision potentially opens the door for plaintiffs in FMLA cases filed in New York to name individual supervisors as defendants in their lawsuits.

In Haybarger, the plaintiff, Debra Haybarger, was an office manager for Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole.  Ms. Haybarger's supervisor was William Mancino, the Director of Probation and Parole.  Ms. Haybarger had Type II diabetes, heart disease, and kidney problems, which constituted serious health conditions under the FMLA and caused her to miss work frequently to seek medical attention.  Mr. Mancino allegedly expressed dissatisfaction with Ms. Haybarger's absences and wrote on her performance evaluation that Ms. Haybarger needed "[t]o improve her overall health and cut down on the days that she misses due to illness."  On March 23, 2004, Mr. Mancino placed Ms. Haybarger on a six-month probationary period due to alleged performance problems, and subsequently recommended the termination of Ms. Haybarger's employment.  Ms. Haybarger's employment was terminated on October 4, 2004.

After her discharge from employment, Ms. Haybarger filed a lawsuit against Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole and Mr. Mancino.  Part of her lawsuit included a claim against Mr. Mancino in his individual capacity for an alleged violation of her rights under the FMLA.  The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted summary judgment to Mr. Mancino with respect to the FMLA claim against him in his individual capacity, but the Third Circuit reversed and remanded the case back to the District Court.

The Third Circuit examined the definition of "employer" under the FMLA, which includes "any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer."  The Third Circuit also reviewed the Department of Labor's regulations implementing the FMLA, which provide that "individuals such as corporate officers 'acting in the interest of an employer' are individually liable for any violations of the requirements of FMLA."  Based on the text of the statute and the regulations, the Third Circuit concluded that "liability for FMLA violations may be imposed upon an individual person who would not otherwise be regarded as the plaintiff's 'employer.'"  Although the employer at issue in the Haybarger case was a public agency, the Third Circuit's analysis appears to apply equally to individual supervisors at private employers as well.

The Third Circuit also held that there was a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether Mr. Mancino exercised sufficient authority over Ms. Haybarger's employment to qualify as an "employer" under the FMLA, and remanded the case back to the District Court for a jury trial.  The Third Circuit applied an "economic reality" test to determine whether a reasonable jury could determine that Mr. Mancino qualified as Ms. Haybarger's employer under the FMLA.  Citing to a Second Circuit Court of Appeals case in the context of a Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") claim, the Third Circuit examined the following factors in applying the "economic reality" test:  (1) whether the individual had the power to hire and fire the employee; (2) whether the individual supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment; (3) whether the individual determined the rate and method of payment; and (4) whether the individual maintained employment records.  Based on these factors, the Third Circuit concluded that a reasonable jury could find that Mr. Mancino acted as Ms. Haybarger's employer under the FMLA.

Employers in New York should be aware that plaintiffs who allege a violation of their FMLA rights may name individual supervisors as defendants in their lawsuits.  Employers should take this opportunity to train their supervisors regarding their obligations under the FMLA.  Employers should also remind their supervisors that their actions could result not only in liability for the employer, but also potentially in liability for themselves.