In the case of Haybarger vs. Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals recognized for the first time that a supervisor at a private employer may be held individually liable for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Experts say, however, that the issue of individual liability is still very much undecided.
In this case, Debra Haybarger -- who was employed as an office manager with Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole -- missed work frequently to seek medical attention related to her Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems, according to the lawsuit.
Her supervisor often "expressed dissatisfaction with her absence," and noted her absenteeism in conversations as well as during annual performance evaluations, the lawsuit states.
Haybarger, who was terminated six months after being disciplined by her supervisor for her "conduct, work ethic and behavior," subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming violation of the FMLA and suing her supervisor in his individual capacity.
"It's important to note that this decision applies only to the Third Circuit," says Daniel L. Saperstein, a Newark, N.J.-based partner in the labor and employment law department of Proskauer. Whether FMLA allows for individual liability for supervisors is still unclear in other federal court districts.
The case may lead to more lawsuits, he says, "but should not have much effect on day-to-day operations."