FMLA Retaliation and Interference Claims Survive Summary Judgment; Case Continues Against HR Director as FMLA “Employer”; ADA “Associational Discrimination” Claim Properly Dismissed

In Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America et al, 15-888-cv (2nd Cir. March 17, 2016), the Second Circuit vacated a district court’s Order granting defendants summary judgment and dismissing plaintiff’s claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Here are the facts, as summarized by the court:

Plaintiff Cathleen Graziadio, an employee at the Culinary Institute of America (“CIA”), took leave under the [FMLA] to care for a son suffering from diabetes and took additional leave a few weeks later when her second son broke his leg. During Graziadio’s second term of absence, CIA took issue with the paperwork supporting Graziadio’s leave and refused to allow her to return until she provided new documentation. Communication between Graziadio and CIA broke down, and CIA ultimately fired Graziadio for abandoning her job.

The district court granted summary judgment to defendants, holding that plaintiff established neither that she was wrongfully denied FMLA leave, nor that CIA’s actions were retaliatory or discriminatory.

FMLA “Employer”

Initially, the court held that a rational trier of fact could find that the HR Director was an “employer”, and hence liable, under the FMLA.

The court explained that whether one is an “employer” under the FMLA is determined by reference to whether one is an “employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Specifically, “employer” status is determined by applying the “economic-reality test” which asks “whether the alleged employer possessed the power to control the worker[] in question, with an eye to the ‘economic reality’ presented by the facts of each case”, which in turn requires consideration of a number of factors.

Applying the law to the facts, the court identified evidence that the HR Director “exercised sufficient control over [plaintiff]’s employment.” The court noted, for example, evidence that the HR director appeared to have played an “important role in the decision to fire” plaintiff and “exercised control over [plaintiff]’s schedule and conditions of employment, at least with respect to her return from FMLA leave.”

FMLA Interference

Turning to the merits, for the first time in a published opinion, the court stated the requirements of a prima facie case of interference with FMLA rights:

[T]o prevail on a claim of interference with her FMLA rights, a plaintiff must establish: 1) that she is an eligible employee under the FMLA; 2) that the defendant is an employer as defined by the FMLA; 3) that she was entitled to take leave under theFMLA; 4) that she gave notice to the defendant of her intention to take leave; and 5) that she was denied benefits to which she was entitled under the FMLA.

As to plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim, the court held that plaintiff “raised questions of material fact regarding both whether she took intermittent leave subsequent to her return to work and whether any such intermittent leave was approved.” The fact that plaintiff “could not recall at her deposition whether she took … intermittent leave does not, as the district court suggested, decide the issue” but rather “makes the question a disputed one that is appropriately resolved by a factfinder.”

It held that plaintiff presented evidence that defendant denied or withheld approval of plaintiff’s requested leave, and that she was entitled to the leave denied her.

FMLA Retaliation

Plaintiff also presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment on her FMLA retaliation claim:

The weakness of the evidence supporting the defendant’s explanation, considered in conjunction with the very close temporal proximity between [plaintiff]’s leave and her termination, would then permit the conclusion that defendants’ decision to fire [plaintiff] arose not from her ‘abandonment’ of her position but from her much-contested attempt to take FMLA leave. … There is no question but that defendants refused to reinstate [plaintiff] because she took leave that they declined to approve under the FMLA. It requires little imagination to infer that they fired her for the same reason.

She also presented additional circumstantial evidence supporting a finding of pretext – including CIA’s suspension of her computer network access “well before she was told to contact her supervisor or thought to have abandoned her post.”

Associational Disability Discrimination

Finally, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s “associational discrimination” claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The court explained what a plaintiff must establish to make out an “associational discrimination” claim under the ADA:

[A] plaintiff must first make out a prima facie case by establishing: 1) that she was qualified for the job at the time of an adverse employment action; 2) that she was subjected to adverse employment action; 3) that she was known at the time to have a relative or associate with a disability; and 4) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances raising a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative or associate was a determining factor in the employer’s decision.

It identified three situations/theories that would give rise to such a claim: (1) “expense,” (2) “disability by association,” and (3) “distraction.”

Here, plaintiff’s claim was of the “distraction” type – i.e., “distraction stemming from [plaintiff]’s care for [her son]’s diabetes.” The Second Circuit agreed with the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claim:

[Plaintiff] has not presented evidence that she was fired because her employer suspected distraction or concern for [her son] would cause her to perform her work inadequately; rather she has presented evidence that she was terminated because her employer felt she was taken too much leave from work to care for her sons. … She has not shown that her employer feared she would be inattentive at work, but rather that her employer feared she would not be at work at all, because of a need for accommodation to which she was not entitled under the ADA. (Emphasis added by court.)