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Supervisor can be held liable for violations of FMLA: Court


PHIILADELPHIA—An individual supervisor can be held liable under the Family Medical Leave Act, says an appellate court.

According to Tuesday's decision in Debra Haybarger vs. Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, Ms. Haybarger began working as an office manager in the Mew Castle, Pa., parole office in 1988.

Ms. Haybarger, who has diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems, was forced to miss work frequently to seek medical attention. Her supervisor, William Mancino, the office's director, expressed dissatisfaction with her absences despite realizing they were due to illness, at one point advising her that she “needed to start taking better care of herself,” according to the ruling.

At his recommendation, Ms. Haybarger was terminated in March 2004. She filed suit based on several claims, but all except her FMLA claim against Mr. Mancino eventually were either dismissed on summary judgment or settled.

A district court held that Mr. Mancino “did not have sufficient control over Haybarger's employment for liability to attach” and granted him summary judgment, dismissing the case against him.

But a three-judge appellate panel disagreed.

Addressing first the issue of whether the FMLA permits individual liability against supervisors, the court concluded it does. A section of the legislation that states the law applies to “‘any person who acts directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer' plainly contemplates that liability for FMLA violations may be imposed upon an individual person who would not otherwise be regarded as the plaintiff's employer,'” says the ruling. And the Department of Labor's implementing regulations confirm that the FMLA permits individual liability, the ruling says.

“Furthermore, we discern no reason to distinguish between public agencies and private employers under the FMLA insofar as individual liability is concerned,” says the ruling.

The panel also concluded Mr. Mancino can be held individually liable in this case.

“We believe a rational juror could find that Mancino had sufficient control over Haybarger's employment so as to be subject to liability for a violation of the FMLA that he caused to occur,” said the ruling. “We therefore do not agree that Mancino is entitled to summary judgment,” it said in remanding the case for further proceedings.

The ruling noted also that that while the 6th and 11th circuits have issued rulings that do not permit liability against supervisors at public agencies, the 5th Circuit has said it is permitted.

Commenting on the decision, Molly DiBianca, an associate with law firm Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor L.L.P. In Wilmington, Del., who was not involved in the case, said the ruling seems “to indicate that it's not that hard to find liability” for individual supervisors or human resource managers.

She noted Mr. Mancino's supervisors had essentially rubber-stamped his decision to terminate Ms. Haybarger, and recommended that—in order to avoid liability in light of this ruling—individual supervisors “to the extent it's feasible, have other levels of authority higher up in the chain of command do a little bit more due diligence in these decisions.”

She also said employers should examine their employment practices liability insurance coverage to see whether individual supervisors are covered under its terms.

In another appellate FMLA ruling, the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati last month held an employer that failed to communicate its method of calculating FMLA benefits cannot terminate a worker for violating its policy.

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