A federal district court in California recently ruled that supervisors can be sued individually for violations of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The ruling means that supervisors could be independently responsible for damages, separate and apart from the employer’s liability. In reaching this decision, the court focused on the specific language in the FMLA which defines “employer” to include “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.”
Details on the Case
An employee made a request for FMLA leave to care for her father. The employee had recently been promoted to a position that was more than 100 miles, and a two-hour commute, away from her previous job site. She requested leave every morning to care for her father Monday through Friday, and also requested to be allowed to work in the afternoons from her prior work site in order to be closer to him as his primary caregiver.
While the employer initially agreed to allow the request on a “temporary” basis, it denied her request when it extended beyond a few months. The employee sued both her employer and the individual supervisors. She said her supervisors interfered with her ability to take FMLA leave by denying her request and telling her she could only get “one FMLA leave.” The supervisors disputed that they could be held individually liable. The court noted that there was a split among different federal circuit courts of appeal on this issue, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers California, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington) has yet to rule on this issue. The district court decided that the plain language of the FMLA clearly covers the supervisors. The case will now continue on to trial (Aguirre v. State of California, ND Cal, Nov. 2017).
Tips for Employers
This case highlights the importance of making sure supervisors involve HR in any FMLA decisions and avoid criticizing employees for leave requests that are potentially protected by law. For general information on the FMLA, please see Vigilant’s Legal Guide, “At a Glance: Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).” This Legal Guide also has links to numerous resources on the FMLA.
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