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Third Circuit Issues Bright-line Interpretation of FMLA’s “Overnight Stay” Rule

Early last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a former employee’s hospital stay did not count as an “overnight stay” under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and thus did not trigger the FMLA’s protections, because the employee was not admitted to the hospital and discharged on two separate calendar days.  The decision provides helpful guidance for employers and employees alike regarding what, exactly, constitutes an “overnight stay” under the FMLA.  The case is Jeffrey Bonkowski v. Oberg Industries Inc., Case No. 14-1239 (3rd.Cir. May 22, 2015).

By way of background, the plaintiff worked as a wirecut operator and machinist for defendant Oberg.  On November 14, 2011, plaintiff was given permission to leave work early by two supervisors after he complained of shortness of breath, chest pain and dizziness.  Shortly before midnight that evening, plaintiff arrived at the hospital, and he was admitted shortly after midnight on November 15.  Plaintiff was later discharged from the hospital in the early evening hours of November 15.  The next day, Oberg informed plaintiff that his employment had been terminated because he had walked off the job on November 14.

Plaintiff sued, alleging retaliation and interference with his rights under the FMLA. Oberg subsequently moved for summary judgment, and a Pennsylvania district court granted the motion, finding that the plaintiff did not have a “serious health condition,” which the FMLA defines, in part, as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical condition that involves (A) inpatient care in a hospital . . .”  The relevant regulations further define “inpatient care” as “an overnight stay in a hospital . . .”  The district court reasoned that because the plaintiff had been both admitted and discharged on November 15, his hospital visit was not an “overnight stay.”

The Third Circuit (which covers Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Virgin Islands) affirmed.  After rejecting several approaches offered by the parties, including a “sunset-sunrise” definition to “overnight stay” and a “totality of the circumstances” approach, the court ultimately held that “overnight stay” means a stay “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.”  In addition, the court held that the stay must be for a “substantial period of time,” and opined that a minimum of eight hours would be an appropriate period of time.

The Third Circuit’s decision provides a helpful and definitive bright-line interpretation of “impatient care” and the circumstances in which the FMLA’s protections are triggered by an employee’s overnight stay at a hospital or comparable medical facility.  While the decision may result in inequitable outcomes in certain circumstances –as argued by the dissent—the decision is likely a favorable one for employers and provides certainty in determining when an employee’s FMLA rights are triggered.

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Frank Hupfl