A Massachusetts District Court, in Eichenholz v. Brinks Incorporated, et. al., has determined that an individual supervisor may be held personally liable for violating an employee’s FMLA rights.
Background. In 2015, the plaintiff notified his supervisor that he needed to take a medical leave of absence in order to have surgery. A week after the plaintiff’s medical leave commenced, his supervisor issued a performance improvement plan which criticized the employee’s work performance.
When the plaintiff returned to work from FMLA leave, his supervisor sent him another copy of the plan and attempted to make contact by telephone to discuss it. In response, the plaintiff resigned from his position with the employer and proceeded to sue both his former employer and supervisor, as an individual, in federal court, claiming harassment, discrimination and retaliation in violation of his FMLA rights. In turn, the supervisor requested that the court dismiss the plaintiff’s claims against him on the basis that an individual supervisor could not be liable for violations of the FMLA.
District Court. In denying the supervisor’s motion to dismiss the claims against him, the court first noted that FMLA liability may attach to any “employer” and that the statute provides a broad definition of “employer” that includes any individual who acts directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer to any employees of such employer.
The court next observed that the definition of “employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) was materially identical to the definition contained in the FMLA. Accordingly, because the First Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Massachusetts federal courts) had previously ruled that an individual supervisor may be personally sued for FLSA violations, the court found it was logical to follow this ruling when determining whether the supervisor could be found individually liable for FMLA violations.
Finally, the court explained that the majority of federal courts considering the issue have determined that individual supervisors can be held personally liable for violating the FMLA rights of employees under their supervision. Therefore, the court rejected the supervisor’s argument that an individual could not be personally liable under FMLA and allowed the plaintiff the opportunity to prove his claims against the supervisor at trial.
Employer Takeaway. Massachusetts supervisors must now face the possibility of personal liability for violating the FMLA rights of their subordinate employees. Therefore, supervisors must exercise due caution when it comes to FMLA compliance and assume that any request for time off for a medical reason is a request for FMLA leave. In addition, supervisors should receive training from their employers on the proper processing of FMLA leave requests.
Eichenholz is available at: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCOURTS-mad-1_16-cv-11786/pdf/USCOURTS-mad-1_16-cv-11786-0.pdf