FMLA Overnight Decision Is Serious Business
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals dealt employers a strong hand early in May of 2015 when they strengthened the definition of the “serious health condition” clause in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by defining “overnight stay.” This court, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania and New Jersey, prepared this definition of “overnight stay” while ruling on the appeal of Bonkowski versus Oberg Industries, Inc. The FMLA defines “inpatient care” as an “overnight stay in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical facility” while stating that one indication of a “serious health condition” is an “overnight stay.”
The legal definition of “overnight” apparently is not black and white even for those wearing black robes and holding gavels. This recent ruling on “overnight stay” by this Appeals Court exposes the definition dilemma of judges as they attempt to define common, everyday terms. To most of us, the meaning of “overnight” appears to be straightforward. To experienced cooks the instruction to “cover and refrigerate overnight,” means 6 to 8 hours and for most of us, overnight is the amount of time you spend sleeping. However, none of these common sense definitions made the cut, even though the Farmer’s Almanac was the initial basis of one “overnight” definition.
Meeting Gone Bad
Mr. Bonkowski, an employee of Oberg Industries, Inc., had a history of medical conditions including heart issues and diabetes. In November 2011, as he was meeting with supervisors to discuss an employee matter, he fell ill with a variety of symptoms. Given permission to leave work and head home, he left the premises with the understanding that the meeting would continue the next day. When he failed to show up for work the next day as planned, his employer fired him for abandoning his job. In the FMLA action against Oberg Industries, Inc., Bonsowski alleged that the firing was in retaliation for exercising his rights under the FMLA and for obstruction of those same rights.
Tale of a Few Minutes
When the appeal of Bonkowski versus Oberg Industries, Inc., landed on the desks of the Third Circuit Court, the definition of “overnight stay” as it pertains to a “serious health condition” in FMLA regulations emerged as the question of the day. Plaintiff Bonkowski needed to establish that he had a serious health condition by FMLA standards, and he claimed that the definition of “overnight stay” was fulfilled as he not only spent several hours in the hospital, but had extensive medical tests while admitted or in legal terms, a “totality of circumstances.” However, the facts of the case established that the hospital admitted Bronkowski a few minutes after midnight and discharged him fourteen hours later that same day. Consequently Oberg Industries, Inc. initially prevailed, when the first Court defined “overnight stay” as being from “sunset one day to sunrise the next day”, basing the decision on the above-mentioned Farmer’s Almanac.
Two Swings and One Hit
In the appeal ruling, the Third Circuit Court considered three approaches put forth by the participants. These included the “sunset to sunrise” definition initially put forth by the District Court when ruling in favor of Oberg Industries, Inc., the Plaintiff’s “totality of circumstances” argument and the Oberg Industries’ “calendar day” case. Winning the appeal sweepstakes was Oberg’s “calendar day” argument. Apparently, the “sunset to sunrise” definition appeared too unwieldy and inconsistent for the judges as several factors, including time and location had to be taken into account. In addition, Mr. Bonkowski’s “totality of circumstances,” according to the court, would lead to juries deliberating comparable sets of facts and reaching dissimilar results.
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Liberal Calendar Rule
Even though Mr. Bonkowski spent a substantial amount of time in the hospital, the court’s definition of “overnight” ultimately derailed his case. In rejecting the “sunset to sunrise” definition and handing down a “bright-line calendar day” ruling in favor of Oberg Industries, the court made the determination that this particular approach would simplify and deter disputes over the term “overnight” in future actions, and leave less room for varying interpretations. Per the court, it was the “preferable approach as it stayed consistent with FMLA objectives and was actually more liberal than the sunset to sunrise approach in that it did not require the admission of a patient prior to sunset, just prior to midnight.”
In a further ruling, the court went on to clarify the notion of “substantial” as it pertains to the whole “overnight stay” situation. In order to avoid situations where a patient might be admitted for a short period, for instance, just prior to midnight and discharged by one or two in the morning, the court added that eight hours would be the minimum amount of time necessary to meet the definition of substantial in this case.