Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Third Circuit Defines "Overnight Stay" for FMLA

Under the FMLA, eligible employees of covered employers may take leave for a "serious health condition" (or to care for a family member with such a condition). A "serious health condition" is defined to include "inpatient care in a hospital." Department of Labor regulations define "inpatient care" to include "an overnight stay." Did you follow all of that?

In Bonkoswki v. Oberg Industries, Inc. (opinion here), the Third Circuit held that an "overnight stay" must span two different calendar days. The start and stop times are measured from the time of admission to a hospital until the time of discharge. Mr. Bonkoswki went to the hospital before midnight, but was not admitted until after midnight (he checked out the evening following midnight). So, he was not covered (because the admission time is the one that counts).

Wait, what if somebody is admitted at 11:59 PM and discharged at 12:01 AM... you're telling me they're covered!? Actually, no. In addition to spanning two calendar days, the stay must be for a "substantial period of time." How long is that?
Under the circumstances, a minimum of eight hours would seem to be an appropriate period of time. However, because we need not decide this issue to resolve this dispute, we leave this issue of the requisite length of time for another day.
Soooo, the court's not going to answer that question... but it's 8 hours.

Bonkoswki was a split decision. The dissent notes a series of seemingly unfair and illogical disparities in how the FMLA will apply to different employees under the majority's opinion:
For example, an employee is being driven to the hospital at the onset of his illness, and his transportation becomes disabled. He arrives at the hospital at 12:05 a.m. and remains in the hospital until 7 p.m. the next evening, a total of nineteen hours. This employee would not qualify for FMLA relief. But a separate employee arriving at 11:55 p.m. would merit relief. Or, consider the employee who arrives at 11:55 p.m., but because of staffing problems, the employee is not formally admitted until 12:02 a.m. He would not qualify for FMLA relief.
While I'm sympathetic to this fairness argument, the last thing employment law needs is another "totality of the circumstances" test. They're near-worthless to employers who are just trying to figure out how the law applies to their circumstances. By contrast, the "bright line" rule of the majority will create certainty in this one small corner of the FMLA.