Individual May Be Deemed an "Employer" Under the FMLA
Plaintiff Patricia Weth, formerly a deputy treasurer for litigation in the Arlington County Treasurer’s Office, took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) for several weeks during December of 2009 until mid-February of 2010 to have medically necessary surgery performed. On the same day that she returned to work from her medical leave, Weth was told by her boss, Arlington County Treasurer Francis O’Leary, that he wanted her to find a new job and that her main focus should be finding a new job. O’Leary promptly stripped Weth of almost all of her job duties, and told her she was no longer to perform other job duties with the exception of one project and the duty of finding a new job. Predictably, under such facts, Weth filed claims of FMLA interference for the County’s failure to place her in the same or similar position after her FMLA leave as she had prior to the leave; and a claim of FMLA retaliation for her demotion and discharge after returning from FMLA leave. However, Weth’s lawsuit ran into a stumbling block concerning the appropriate defendant(s) to sue.
In the case of Weth v. Francis X. O’Leary, Plaintiff initially filed suit against Arlington County, the County Treasurer’s Office, and Defendant O’Leary. However, since County Treasurers such as O’Leary are deemed independent constitutional officers under the Virginia Constitution, the Court dismissed the case against the County and the Treasurer’s office as they were improper Defendants. Weth then filed an Amended Complaint against O’Leary in his official and individual capacity. On summary judgment, after dismissing the case against O’Leary in his official capacity based upon sovereign immunity, one of the main issues revolved around whether O’Leary, as a County official, could be sued under the FMLA in his individual capacity as an “employer”. Acknowledging that the issue remains an open question in the Fourth Circuit, and that there is a split on the issue within the federal courts, the Court looked to the text of the FMLA and the holding of a majority of the district courts that have ruled on the issue. In particular, the Court looked to the Fifth and Eight Circuits, which (relying upon the text of the FMLA) have held that public agency officials, including state officials, can be sued in their individual capacities if they act directly or indirectly on behalf of the employer. A prominent example of such authority being the hiring and firing of employees.
In this case, since O’Leary clearly had the authority to hire and fire employees such as Plaintiff Weth, the Court held that he could be sued in his individual capacity under the FMLA. The Court concluded that to rule otherwise would run contrary to the very text of the FMLA, which, in addition to including those with such authority as O’Leary in the definition of an employer, also states that “public agencies” are included within the definition of employer. Therefore, the Court ruled that Plaintiff Weth will be allowed to pursue her claims against Defendant O’Leary in his individual capacity at trial.
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