Can an individual supervisor be held liable when an employee files suit? Well, like all legal questions, it depends. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion yesterday expanding the instances when the answer to this question is yes in Haybarger v. Lawrence County Adult Probation & Parole, No. 10-3916 (3d Cir. Jan. 31, 2012).
The plaintiff, Debra Haybarger, was the office manager for Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole, an agency of the Lawrence County of Court of Common Pleas. Haybarger reported to Director William Mancino who, turn, reported to Court Adminstrator Michael Occhibone. Occhibone reported to the President Judge of the Court, Judge Dominick Motto.
Hayberger missed a lot of work due to various illnesses. Her boss, Mancino, was "displeased" by the absences, writing on her performance evaluations that she needed to "improve her overall health and cut down on the days she misses due to illness." He also commented about her health and suggested that she need to "start taking better care of [her]self." Yikes.
Mancino put Haybarger on a six-month probation, which required weekly progress reports and formal monthly meetings. In a disciplinary letter, he wrote that Haybarger's "conduct, work ethic and behavior [were] non-conducive to the Adult Probation Office." He also wrote that she demonstrated a "lack of leadership," and "no clear understanding of the subordinate positions" that she supervised. Gulp.
At the end of the six months, Mancino told his superiors that Haybarger's performance had not improved and recommended that she be terminated. They followed his recommendation.
Haybarger sued the agency, the county, and Mancino under the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, Pennsylvania's state discrimination statute, and the FMLA. Initially, the District Court dismissed all of the claims except for the Rehabilitation Act claim against the agency and the FMLA and state-law claims against Mancino.
After limited discovery, the agency moved for summary judgment, alleging it was immune from suit pursuant to the 11th Amendment. The motion was denied and the Third Circuit affirmed.
On remand, the agency again moved for summary judgment, as did Mancino. The agency's motion was denied but the parties subsequently settled, leaving only the FMLA claim against Mancino in his individual capacity.
The District Court held that, while the FMLA permits individual liability against supervisors at public agencies, the plaintiff failed to show that Mancino had "sufficient control over [her] conditions and terms of employment" because he did not have authority to hire and fire and, therefore, was not a supervisor.
The Third Circuit determined, as a matter of first impression, that supervisors at public agencies are subject to liability under the FMLA was one of first impression. The court then went on to find that Mancino could be considered a supervisor and, in turn, an "employer" for purposes of the FMLA.
In its first finding, the court rejected the positions of the 6th and 11th Circuits, both of which have found that the FMLA does not provide for individual liability for supervisors and, instead, adopting the reasoning of the 5th Circuit. This conclusion was based on the determination 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 then turned to the facts that could support a finding that Mancino could be considered to be an "employer" for the purposes of the FMLA. In sum, the court explained, "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 Impact on Supervisors
There are several lessons to be learned from this case--some more obvious than others. First, do not comment (or care) about the reasons for an employee's absence. If an employee is absent and is permitted to be absent--because of your leave policy, because of the FMLA, or otherwise--then the reason(s) for the absence is irrelevant. Do not care and do not comment about why an employee is taking leave when she is permitted to do so.
Second, learn how to write a better performance evaluation. Ambiguous comments like, "employee demonstrates poor leadership skills" do not help the employee improve because they do not identify the underlying conduct that you want her to change. Give an example of how she fails to be a good leader. If you cannot articulate a specific example of what you consider to be poor performance, it is not poor performance under the law.
Third, to avoid being held individually liable under the law, supervisors are best advised to let HR do what they do best--including administering FMLA leave. Simply turn it over to HR and then get the pros involved when writing performance evaluations and considering disciplinary action for any employee who has been approved for FMLA leave. This stuff isn't easy--get help from the pros.