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Friday, March 18, 2016

FMLA Legal Liability Can Cover HR Director

Cathleen Graziadio worked as a Payroll Administrator at the Culinary Institute of America. On June 6, 2012, Graziadio’s seventeen-year-old son was hospitalized as a result of Type I diabetes and Graziadio promptly informed her supervisor that she would need to leave work to take care of him.  Seeking to have her absence designated as leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) she submitted a medical certification supporting her need for leave to care for her son.

On that same day, June 27, Graziadio’s twelve-year-old son fractured his leg playing basketball and underwent surgery for the injury. Again, Graziadio promptly notified her supervisor that she would need immediate leave to care for her son and that she expected to return the week of July 9, “at least part time.”  When July 9 arrived, the supervisor asked for an update on Graziadio’s return, to which Graziadio responded that she would need to work a reduced, three-day week schedule until mid-to-late August and could return on Thursday, July 12, if that schedule was approved. She also asked, if there was “any further documentation that may need from me.”

In reply the HR Director sent Graziadio a letter stating that her FMLA paperwork did not justify her absences from the workplace and that Graziadio must “provide updated paperwork to this office which addresses this deficiency.”  However the HR Director did not make it clear on what paperwork she would to see and rejected the note from one of the son’s doctors as failing to establish a “medical necessity for you to provide full time medical care.” Finally, the HR Director announced that she would “no longer be able to discuss this matter over email,” and asked Graziadio to “[p]lease provide . . . three dates/times for this week that you are available to come into work and meet with me” in person.

In an excruciating exchange, Graziadio then proceeded to email back and forth about scheduling a meeting without actually arranging it. Communication further degraded to the point that “all communications must occur between counsel.”

The Company fired Graziadio on September 11, 2012, for abandoning her position. The letter explained that Graziadio had been asked “through your attorneys . . . to return to work and to contact your supervisor to arrange a return to work date. . . . Based on the fact that you have not contacted your supervisor to arrange to return to work as of the date of this letter, it is obvious to us that you do not want to return to work.” Her termination was effective as of the date of the letter.

Graziadio subsequently filed suit in New York Federal Court bringing  claims  against  both the Company and the HR Director individually  for  interference  with FMLA leave and FMLA retaliation. The Second Circuit ruled Thursday that the Culinary Institute of America’s HR Director could be held individually liable for Family and Medical Leave Act violations, saying she had enough control over an employee's job and enough input into her firing to qualify her as an “employer” under the statute.

Common Sense Counsel: having a properly drafted FMLA policy, mandated forms and supervisory training is the bare minimum. Keeping a cool head when those around you do not is leadership and legal risk reduction.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901 with blog at www.alabamaatwork.com with full text of case.