One of the ways an employee can prove a serious health condition entitling him/her to the protections of the FMLA is to have an illness, injury, impairment, or physical condition which involves inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility.  Inpatient care is defined in FMLA regulations as an overnight stay.  While the meaning of “overnight stay” would appear to be straightforward, that is not necessarily the case.  Recently, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals – which has jurisdiction over cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey – was called upon to interpret this term in a case of first impression in that Court. AdmitOne-600x320In Bonkowski v. Oberg Industries, the Plaintiff, Mr. Bonkowski, had a history of medical conditions, including heart issues and diabetes.  On November 14, 2011, he met with two supervisors to discuss a pending disciplinary matter.  At that time, he began experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness, so his supervisors gave him permission to go home and continue the meeting the next day.  He clocked out at 5:18 p.m.

Shortly after 11:00 p.m. that night, Mr. Bonkowski’s wife drove him to the local hospital where they arrived shortly before midnight.  He was admitted to the hospital shortly after midnight on November 15, 2011, and was released that same evening (November 15th).  He was discharged with instructions to follow up with his primary care physician; however, no restrictions were placed on his activities.

On November 16, 2011, Mr. Bonkowski was fired because he didn’t show up for work the day prior.  In the employer’s eyes, Bonkowski simply abandoned his job.  Mr. Bonkowski then filed his FMLA action against Oberg alleging retaliation against him for exercising his rights under the FMLA, and interference with exercising those same rights.

Granting the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Oberg, the District Court ruled that the “Plaintiff can establish he had a qualifying serious medical condition only if he is able to establish he spent the entire ‘night’ as an inpatient at the hospital’’ and that “’an overnight stay’ at a hospital is a stay from sunset on one day to sunrise the next day.”  The District Court rejected Mr. Bonkowski’s argument that arriving at the hospital before midnight began his stay.

On appeal, the Third Circuit’s plurality decision first noted the legislative history of the FMLA, which indicated that “serious health condition,” as defined in the Act, was not intended to cover short-term conditions for which treatment and recovery are very brief because an employer’s sick leave policy would most likely cover such situations.  Because the Department of Labor had not addressed exactly what is meant by an “overnight stay,” the Court set forth its interpretation, and in so doing, considered three approaches: (1) the District Court’s sunset-sunrise approach, which was – believe it or not – based on the Old Farmer’s Almanac, (2) the totality of the circumstances approach offered by Mr. Bonkowski, and (3) Oberg’s “calendar day” approach.

After analyzing the facts under each of these approaches, the Third Circuit rejected the District Court’s sunset-sunrise approach because it was tied to extraneous factors including the time of year and geographic location.  Mr. Bonkowski’s “totality of the circumstances” approach was also rejected.  The Court reasoned that leaving such a determination to a jury would result in inconsistent results and would make it more difficult for employers and employees to determine whether a specific set of circumstances amounted to an “overnight stay.”

Instead, the Court adopted a modification of the calendar day approach argued by Oberg to affirm the grant of summary judgment and held “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 his or her time of discharge.”  The Court stated that a minimum stay of 8 hours spanning one calendar day to the next would “likely” satisfy the FMLA’s requirements, but left the exact length of a stay to be decided at a future time.

While the precise situation in the Bonkowski case may not be one most employers ever have to address, it remains an illustration of how nuanced FMLA administration can be. Without any guidance from the Department of Labor, interpretations of parts of the Act can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, depending on where you do business as an employer, which makes consultation with competent counsel on FMLA questions even more important.

One final point: while the employer in this case was successful in defending Bonkowski’s claims, caution is urged before taking disciplinary action against an employee for not showing up for work the day after you excuse him because of symptoms of a known medical condition.  For some reason, Bonkowski did not claim that the decision to fire him under those circumstances was otherwise discriminatory.  A different attorney in the same case might have put forth a few more causes of action besides just those under the FMLA.  In that event, the end result may have been different.

Allison Williams focuses her practice in the area of labor and employment law, litigation, and higher education law. Ms. Williams' practice includes cases pending in state and federal courts, as well as actions pending before the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board, the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
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