Second Circuit Clarifies FMLA and ADA Association-Disability Standards

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On March 17, 2016, in Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, the Second Circuit articulated the test for an employee-employer relationship with respect to Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) claims and clarified the standards for establishing prima facie cases in FMLA interference claims, FMLA retaliation claims, and association-disability claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Cathleen Graziadio worked as a Payroll Administrator at the Culinary Institute of America (the “Institute”). On June 6, 2012, she took a leave under the FMLA to care for one of her sons who suffers from diabetes and took additional leave on June 27 when her other son broke his leg. The Institute took issue with the paperwork supporting her second FMLA leave and refused to allow her to return to work until she provided new documentation. Soon after, communication between Ms. Graziadio, Shaynan Garrioch—the Institure’s Director of HR—and Loreen Gardella—Ms. Graziadio’s supervisor—broke down, resulting in the Institute terminating Ms. Graziadio’s employment for abandoning her job.

Ms. Graziadio filed a complaint bringing claims against the Institute, Ms. Garrioch, and Ms. Gardella for interference with FMLA leave, FMLA retaliation, and association-disability discrimination under the ADA. Defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims and, on March 20, 2015, the District Court granted their motion in full. The Court first dismissed Ms. Graziadio’s FMLA claims against Ms. Garrioch, and Ms. Gardella, finding that neither was qualified as an “employer” under the FMLA. Next, it determined that Ms. Graziadio could not sustain her claims of FMLA interference because she had not been denied any leave to care for her disabled son and, having failed to submit a medical certification form, had no entitlement to leave to care for her second son. Finally, it rejected Ms. Graziadio’s FMLA retaliation and ADA discrimination claims, finding that the defendants had proffered legitimate reasons for Ms. Graziadio’s termination and that Ms. Graziadio had not shown these reason to be pretextual. Ms. Graziadio appealed to the Second Circuit, which reversed in part the District Court’s decision.

First, the Second Circuit held that an individual is liable under the FMLA only if he or she is an “employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s “economic reality test.” Under this test, courts must look to “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.” Here, the Second Circuit found that Ms. Gardella arguably exercised control over Ms. Graziadio’s schedule and conditions of employment by controlling the terms of her FMLA leave, handling all leave related communications, and ultimately communicating her termination.  The Second Circuit concluded that Ms. Gardella could be held individually liable given this level of control.

Second, the Second Circuit articulated elements for FMLA interference claims: a plaintiff must establish that (1) 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 the FMLA, (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. With respect to the fourth element, Ms. Garrioch avoided responding to any of Ms. Graziadio’s pleas for clarification regarding what paperwork the Institute wanted from Ms. Graziadio such that she could take FMLA leave. The Second Circuit held that such unresponsiveness does not meet the FMLA’s explicit requirement that employers “responsively answer questions from employees concerning their rights and responsibilities under the FMLA,” including their obligations regarding medical certification. The Second Circuit concluded that this was “a violation that could perhaps warrant a jury finding in favor of Ms. Graziadio.”

Third, the Second Circuit rejected the District Court’s ruling that the Institute established a non-discriminatory reason for termination (Plaintiff’s “deficiencies in documentation supporting FMLA leave requests and leave taken and a failure to contact the Institute to arrange a return to work” constitute an abandonment of her position). The Second Circuit concluded that because a jury could find that the Institute interfered with Graziadio’s leave, the District Court’s grounds for dismissal of the retaliation claim were moot. The Second Circuit added, “[T]he weakness of the evidence supporting defendants’ claim of abandonment permits a jury to disbelieve and to disregard their proffered explanation.”

Finally, the Second Circuit ruled to state an ADA association claim, the plaintiff must establish that (1) she was qualified for the job, (2) she was subjected to adverse employment action, (3) she was known at the time to have a relative or associate with a disability, and (4) 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 decision. The Second Circuit added that there are three circumstances that would give rise to a claim of associational discrimination: “(1) ‘expense,’ in which an employee suffers adverse action because of his association with a disabled individual covered by the employer’s insurance, which the employer believes will be costly; (2) ‘disability by association,’ in which the employer fears that the employee may contract or is genetically predisposed to develop the disability of the person with whom he is associated; and (3) ‘distraction,’ in which the employer fears that the employee will be inattentive at work due to the disability of the disabled person.” The Second Circuit concluded that Ms. Graziadio did not show 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. Thus, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her ADA association claim.

If you believe your employer violated your rights, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.