Third Circuit Indicates That Public Agency Supervisors May Be Individually Liable Under the Family and Medical Leave Act

By: Lisa M. Schonbeck, Esq.

On January 31, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided, for the first time in this Circuit, that supervisors within a public agency may be individually and personally liable under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) (Haybarger v. Lawrence County Adult Probation & Parole, 3d. Cir. No. 10-3916).

Background

Debra Haybarger was employed as an office manager for Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole. During her employment, she frequently had to miss work to attend medical appointments in connection with Type II diabetes, heart disease, and kidney problems. William Mancino, Haybarger’s supervisor and the Director of Adult Probation and Parole, repeatedly expressed displeasure with Haybarger’s frequent illness-related absences. He even told Haybarger that she needed to “cut down” on the days she was taking off due to illness and “improve on her overall health.” Eventually, Mancino formally disciplined Ms. Haybarger for her frequent medical absences, placing her on six months of probation. Following the probation period, Mancino told his supervisors that Haybarger’s performance had not improved, and recommended that she be terminated. The Probation Office followed Mancino’s recommendation. Thereafter, Haybarger sued Lawrence County, the Probation Office, and Mancino under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), the Rehabilitation Act, and the FMLA.

The trial court found Mancino could be liable under the FMLA. However, Haybarger had not produced sufficient evidence to show Mancino had final authority to fire her. As such, the trial court granted Mancino summary judgment. Haybarger appealed, arguing that there were genuine issues of material fact that precluded summary judgment as to whether Mancino was her employer.

The Holding

Despite the fact that neither party presented the issue of whether public agency supervisors can be liable under the FMLA, the Third Circuit chose to rule on the issue. In deciding that public agency supervisors may be held individually liable for violations of the FMLA, the Court noted the FMLA defines “employer” in the same manner as the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). That is, the term “employer” includes “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” The Court reasoned that this language “plainly contemplates” that the FMLA allows for individual liability of a person who would not otherwise be considered an “employer.” The Court also noted that the FMLA includes in the definition of “employer” “any public agency,” and saw no reason to differentiate between private and public employers with respect to individual liability under the FMLA.

The Third Circuit rejected the positions of the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits, both of which have found that the FMLA does not provide for individual liability for supervisors. Instead, the Court agreed with the reasoning of the Fifth Circuit in holding that supervisors in public agencies are individually liable under the FMLA. This conclusion was based on the recognition that the language of the FMLA and its implementing regulations are more like the FLSA, which permits individual liability, rather than Title VII, which does not. The Court also rejected the 11th Circuit’s blanket rule against individual FMLA liability for public officials.

So When Is a Supervisor Individually Liable Under the FMLA?

The Court explained that “an individual is subject to FMLA liability when he or she exercises ‘supervisory authority over the complaining employee and was responsible in whole or part for the alleged violation’ while acting in the employer’s interest.” The Court found that there was sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find that Mancino had sufficient control over Haybarger’s employment such that he could be held individually liable under the FMLA, given his substantial influence over the termination decision.

Why Is This Case Important?

The important point to consider is that this decision expands an already-existing split between the Circuits on this issue. Currently, two Circuits have found no basis for individual liability of public supervisors under the FMLA (Sixth and Eleventh) and two Circuits have held the opposite (Third and Fifth). Given this split in the Circuits, the Supreme Court is likely to take up the issue in the near future. Until then, it is important for employers to train their supervisors on employee relations, including conducting sound performance evaluations and how to properly address FMLA requests.

Leech Tishman’s Employment Practice Group has experience handling FMLA and other employment issues and is available to assist you in training your supervisors on employee relations and how to properly handle your employees’ FMLA requests.

Lisa M. Schonbeck is an associate at Leech Tishman and practices in the Employment and Litigation Practice Groups. Lisa can be reached at 412.261.1600 x 233 or lschonbeck@leechtishman.com. Please feel free to contact Lisa with any questions regarding the recent developments with the FMLA or any other employment law issue.

Leech Tishman is a firm dedicated to providing full-service commercial legal services to individuals, businesses, and institutions. We combine a deep understanding of our clients’ and their businesses with skilled legal counsel to find solutions. We offer legal services in alternative dispute resolution, bankruptcy & creditors’ rights, construction, corporate, employment, energy, environmental, safety & toxic torts, estates & trusts, government relations, insurance coverage & corporate risk mitigation, litigation, real estate, and taxation. For more information call 412.261.1600 or visit www.leechtishman.com.