Supervisors May Be Sued Under The FMLA

On January 31, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit outlined factors to be used when determining whether a supervisor at a public agency can be subject to individual liability under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Family Medical Leave Act allows employees to take unpaid and job protected leave for up to 12 weeks per year. This Act allows employees to balance work and family responsibilities by entitling them to take leave for certain medical or family reasons. FMLA applies to all public agencies and companies with 50 or more employees. To be eligible under the FMLA, an employee must have worked for the employer at least 12 months. An employee may use the FMLA for the following reasons:

• Give birth or care for a newborn
• During placement of a child for adoption or foster care
• To care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition
• To take medical leave when the employee is unable to work due to a serious health condition

Debra Haybarger, a former employee of Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole sued her former supervisor under the FMLA after she was terminated from her position as office manager. Ms. Haybarger, who suffered from type two diabetes, heart disease, and kidney problems, received poor performance reviews from her supervisor which included comments stating that Haybarger needed to improve her overall health and cut down on sick days. Haybarger was eventually fired by the President Judge of the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas after Haybarger’s supervisor advised the Judge that termination was necessary.

Haybarger sued the County of Lawrence, Lawrence County Probation, and her supervisor under the FMLA (along with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and the Rehabilitation Act). The District Court held that Haybarger’s supervisor could not be seen as an “employer” under FMLA since the supervisor did not have “sufficient control over the conditions and terms of employment” and that an employer has sufficient control over an employee if they have authority to fire them.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and ruled that although a supervisor may not have ultimate authority over employment practices, they are not relieved from liability. The Court reasoned that the totality of circumstances must be examined when determining whether an individual supervisor can constitute an “employer.” In Haybarger’s case, while the Court concluded that even if the supervisor did not have final authority to fire Haybarger, the supervisor acted in the interest of the county, carried out his role as a supervisor, exercised control over her work, had authority to discipline her, and recommended to the Judge that she be terminated. These factors were enough for the Court of Appeals to conclude that the supervisor is considered an “employer” and could be held individually liable under the FMLA.

This decision is notable in the employment law context as it expands the circumstances in which supervisors can be held liable for violating employee rights. Supervisors and managers should be aware that just because they may not have direct authority over an employee, they are not shielded from liability when they take actions against employees which are contrary to federal laws such as the FMLA.