A recent ruling by a Pennsylvania appeals court has created a precedent for holding individual supervisors liable for violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The case revolved around probation office employee Debra Haybarger who was in and out of work regularly due to complications from diabetes, heart, and kidney disease. Her immediate supervisor, William Mancino, despite recognizing her condition, repeatedly noted in her annual performance evaluations that the employee needed to “improve” her medical conditions and “cut down” on absences resulting from her diseases. Haybarger reported that Mancino directly advised her to “starting taking better care of yourself,” and publically lamented the fact that she required regular absences to see her doctor.
After these initial incidences, Mancino eventually placed Haybarger on probation for a period of six months due to “non-conducive” work ethic and behavior. He then recommended Haybarger’s termination from her position once her probation had ended. Once Haybarger was fired she sued her employer and Mancino personally for violations of FMLA rules. A district court originally ruled that he could not be held personally liable, but a state appeals court disagreed.
The judge wrote that the technical criteria under which Mancino was held liable was that he was a manager acting as “employer” when he exercised his “…’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 case is now scheduled to return to district court for the final ruling.
The bottom line for supervisors is to avoid commenting about the basis for an employee’s absences and permitted to miss work because of FMLA; it is irrelevant. During performance evaluations, avoid ambiguous phrases when offering negative criticism. Give good examples of how he or she is failing to sufficiently perform. Finally, when considering the discipline of an employer, turn the issue over to HR; it’s what they do, and they do it well.