Third Circuit Provides Further Guidance on the Issue of “Overnight Stays” under the Family and Medical Leave Act

By: Lisa M. Schonbeck, Esq. 

On May 22, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, which granted summary judgment to an employer after determining that an employee was not qualified for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) because he had not stayed “overnight” at a hospital. While the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, it rejected that court’s reasoning and instead established a bright-line interpretation of the FMLA’s “overnight stay” requirement. Bonkowski v. Oberg Industries, Inc., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 8492 (3d Cir. Pa. May 22, 2015).

Background

The issue before the Third Circuit was whether the employee was qualified for FMLA leave. Specifically, the Court was asked to interpret the meaning of the term “overnight stay” for purposes of determining whether the employee was suffering from a “serious health condition.”

Under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to a total of 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period because of a “serious health condition” that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of his or her position. A “serious health condition” is defined to include an “illness, injury, impairment, or physical condition that involves . . . inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, residential medical care facility[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 2611(11). “Inpatient care” is defined as “an overnight stay in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility[.]” 29 C.F.R. § 825.114.

In order to determine whether the employee suffered from a serious health condition, and was therefore entitled to leave and certain protections under the FMLA, the District Court first had to determine whether the employee stayed overnight in the hospital. We reported on the District Court’s decision here. The District Court looked to the definition of “overnight” and interpreted “overnight stay” to require that an individual stay from sunset on one day to sunrise the next day. The District Court concluded that the employee, who arrived at the hospital shortly before midnight, was admitted shortly thereafter and discharged later the same day, did not stay overnight because his admission occurred several hours after sunset.

Holding

The Third Circuit rejected the District Court’s reasoning, noting that its “sunset-sunrise” interpretation of the term “overnight stay” was too narrow and would lead to odd or absurd results. Instead, the Court concluded that an “overnight stay” means a stay in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility for “a substantial period of time from one calendar day to the next calendar day as measured by the individual’s time of admission and time of discharge.”

The Third Circuit recognized that its interpretation created a bright-line test because it relied on calendar days and the time of an individual’s admission and discharge, versus the time an individual arrived at a hospital. However, the Court hoped that such a bright-line interpretation would put employers and employees on notice of when an employee is entitled to leave under the FMLA for a serious health condition that involves inpatient care. With respect to the requirement that an individual stay for a “substantial period of time,” the Court noted that the FMLA is not intended to cover short-term conditions for which treatment and recovery are brief. As a result, a stay from 11:59 p.m. on one calendar day to 2:01 a.m. on the following day would not constitute an “overnight stay.” The Court opined that an eight-hour stay may satisfy the “substantial period of time” requirement but declined to officially resolve that issue. Ultimately, because the employee was not admitted until after midnight and was discharged later that same calendar day, the Court affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Impact on Employers

Employers should become familiar with the various tests that are used by courts to determine if an employee is qualified for leave under the FMLA, and the protections that accompany such leave. This decision will hopefully assist employers in determining whether an employee who has been admitted to the hospital is qualified for leave under the FMLA.

Leech Tishman’s employment attorneys are available to assist your organization in creating an FMLA policy, handling FMLA issues in the workplace, or with any other labor and employment issue.

Lisa M. Schonbeck is a Partner in the Employment and Litigation Practice Group. She is based in the Pittsburgh office. Lisa can be reached at 412.261.1600 or lschonbeck@leechtishman.com.

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