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Federal Court Ruling Opens Way for FMLA Claims Against Individuals

This article by Timothy W. Emery, Esq., a partner with Emery Reddy, PLLC, Attorneys at Law.

A federal district court recently ruled in favor of an employee suing several human resources executives after he was allegedly fired for requesting time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  The ruling may set a precedent in which individuals can be held personally liable for damages allowed through FMLA, including financial loss from a denial of benefits, compensation for back pay, lost wages and attorney fees.

The suit was brought against Cardone Industries and five of its senior HR executives by Dmitry Narodetsky, a tool designer who worked for the company for nearly twelve years before his termination.  His case includes a three-count complaint for violation of the Family Medical Leave Act, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Several weeks prior to his termination, Narodetsky was diagnosed with a leg injury requiring surgery.  His wife promptly notified Narodetsky’s managers that her husband would need time off for the upcoming operation, and requested that they provide short-term disability for his medical leave.  Following the conversation, three of the company’s HR executives and another manager conducted a forensic examination of Narodetsky’s work computer, uncovering evidence of a pornographic email he allegedly forwarded to a coworker over a year earlier.  Before scheduling the surgery, Narodetsky was called into a meeting attended by the defendants, shown the email he had allegedly forwarded, and fired.

Narodetsky alleges that his employers conducted the computer search solely to find a pretext for terminating his employment so they could avoid granting him leave. He filed a suit alleging that not only the company, but also the five individual defendants interfered with his rights under FMLA and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Attorneys for the defense argued that none of the individual claims were warranted because Narodetsky’s suit did “little more than simply list each such defendant’s title,” and because it failed to include “any facts showing how each defendant was involved in plaintiff’s alleged request for medical leave or the decision to terminate.”

Yet U.S. District Judge Thomas N. O’Neill of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania refused to dismiss Narodetsky’s claim, noting that it went well beyond the narrow characterization of the defense by alleging that each of the individual defendants “participated in the forensic search of [the plaintiff’s] computer with the goal of finding a reason to justify his termination because he had requested FMLA leave.”  O’Neill also maintained that the executives and manager were properly named as defendants since each possessed the authority to fire and played a role in the decision to terminate Narodetsky. “The allegations support an inference that each of the defendants exercised control over the plaintiff in the decision to terminate him,” O’Neill wrote.  The judge also stated that “Given the timing of his termination–falling right on the heels of his request for medical leave–I find that it is reasonable to infer that the defendants terminated his employment for the purpose of interfering with his plan benefits.”

Both the individual defendants and Cardone Industries, Inc. have declined to comment publicly on the ruling.  The case is now proceeding to adjudication in a new trial. See O’Neill’s full opinion in Narodetsky v. Cardone Industries Inc. (pdf)

Citation: Narodetsky v. Cardone Industries et al., Case #09-4734; February 24, 2010, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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