Individual Supervisors Can Be Held Liable Under the FMLA

Posted on February 08, 2012


The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that supervisors of both private and public employers may be held personally liable under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  Haybarger v. Lawrence County Probation, 3d. Cir. No-10-3916 (Jan. 31, 2012), is the first case to address liability of individual supervisors in public agencies in the Third Circuit and alters the landscape of potential liability under the FMLA. All employers should be aware of the implications of this holding for their supervisory and management level employees.

In Haybarger, a former employee sued both her former employer and her former supervisor in both his individual and official capacities for violations of several laws, including the FMLA. The court first considered whether individuals can be considered employers under the FMLA. The FMLA definition of “employer” includes “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 2611(4)(A)(ii)(I). Additionally, FMLA regulations explicitly state that individuals acting in the interest of an employer are individually liable for violations of the FMLA’s requirements. 29 C.F.R. § 825.104(d). Moreover, the court also considered the language of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which utilizes the same definition of “employer” and has been interpreted to hold individual supervisors liable for violations of the law. Based on this analysis, the court concluded that individual supervisors may be considered employers under the FMLA.

Next, the court found no reason to distinguish between public agencies and private employers for individual liability. The Third Circuit had previously held individual supervisors of private employers liable for violations of the law. When addressing public agencies, the court explained that FMLAregulations include public agencies in the definition of “employer” and pointed again to the similarities between the FMLA and the FLSA. The FLSA allows individual liability against supervisors at public agencies and, according to the court, so too should the FMLA.

The Third Circuit then explained the level of supervision an individual supervisor must have to be held liable: “[A]n 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.” Courts will look at the economic reality of the employment situation to determine whether the individual supervisor had independent control over a work situation. Factors, including a supervisor’s power to hire and fire, influence over rate and method of payment, and supervision over work schedules, help determine the economic reality of the situation. If a supervisor has substantial control, he or she may be held individually liable for violations of the FMLA. In the end, court remanded the case to the district court for proceedings consistent with its interpretations of the law.

Now more than ever, employers should make their supervisory and management level employees aware of FMLA requirements and the consequences of violating those requirements. Employers can avoid costly litigation and individual liability by remaining vigilant about their FMLA obligations. For more information about the Haybarger decision, for help informing your employees about their obligations under the law, or for general guidance about FMLA compliance, please contact any Knox Labor and Employment attorney at (814) 459-2800.

Article written by Carsen N. Ruperto.

Labor & Employment Department Attorneys


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