In Aguirre v. State of California, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held supervisors can be sued individually for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Court focused on language in the FMLA which defines “employer” to include “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” As a result, supervisors could be independently responsible for damages, separate and apart from the employer’s liability.
In the case, an employee requested FMLA leave to care for her father. The employee had recently been promoted to a position which was a two-hour commute away from her previous job site. The employee requested leave to care for her father every morning, Monday through Friday, and requested to be allowed to work in the afternoons from her prior work site in order to be closer to her father. The employer initially allowed the request on a temporary basis, but denied the request beyond several months. The employee sued the employer and the individual supervisors alleging interference with her FMLA rights. The supervisors asserted they could not be held individually liable. The Court noted a split among the circuit courts that had addressed the issue and that the Ninth Circuit had yet to address the issue. Looking to the plain language of the FMLA, the Court held it clearly covered supervisors. Aguirre v. State of California, ND Cal, Nov. 2017.
This decision emphasizes the need for qualified and experienced HR professionals to be involved in, and likely take the lead relating to, all FMLA decisions. It also emphasizes the need for supervisors to accept FMLA leave as an inescapable reality of the workplace and avoid criticizing or punishing employees who seek to assert their FMLA rights.