Third Circuit Offers Key Guidance on FMLA Regulations for Employers

06.26.2015

Recently, the Third Circuit has issued two opinions that clarify the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) regulations, giving crucial guidance to employers in navigating how to handle employees’ leave requests.

Sunset to Sunrise is Required to be an FMLA “Overnight” Success

First, late last month, the Third Circuit ruled that an employee’s hospital stay did not constitute an “overnight stay”, and therefore did not merit protection under the FMLA.  Under the FMLA, a “serious health condition” is defined as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical condition,” that involves either inpatient care or continuing treatment by a care provider.  The regulations further define “inpatient care,” in part, as “an overnight stay in the hospital.”

In Bonkowski v. Oberg Industries, Inc., Case No. 14-1239 (3rd Cir. May 22, 2015), the plaintiff employee had a history of medical issues.  On November 14, 2011, he was given permission to leave work early after complaining of shortness of breath, chest pains, and dizziness.  The plaintiff went to the hospital later that night for his symptoms, and was admitted shortly after midnight and was discharged later the same day. Plaintiff was terminated the next day and brought suit alleging retaliation and interference with his rights under the FMLA.  The Court held that the plaintiff did not have a serious health condition because his trip to the hospital did not constitute an “overnight stay” within the meaning of the FMLA. The Third Circuit adopted a clear "bright-line" calendar test and ruled that for purposes of the FMLA, an overnight stay is “for a substantial period of time from one calendar day to another calendar day as measured by the individual’s time of admission and time of discharge.” The Third Circuit also suggested that “a minimum of eight hours would seem to be an appropriate period of time.”  Thus, an individual who is admitted to a hospital and discharged on the same calendar day appears to have a short-term condition, for which treatment and recovery are brief. Thus, the employee’s visit to the hospital would not be protected by the FMLA.

Employees Must Be Given Time to Clarify Medical Leave Requests

On June 22, 2015, on a matter of first impression, the Third Circuit in Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, Case No. 14-1771 (3rd Cir. June 22, 2015), held that an employer must give an employee the opportunity to cure any deficiencies in a medical certification submitted in support of FMLA leave. In Hansler, the plaintiff submitted a request for intermittent FMLA leave, along with a medical certification that stated that she would need about two days off per week for one month, but did not specify the nature of her medical condition. The defendant employer terminated Hansler for absenteeism without seeking further information from either her or her physician.  Hansler then sued her employer alleging interference and retaliation under the FMLA.

The employer argued that the request for leave was defective, because the FMLA requires that a chronic serious health condition persist for “an extended period of time,” but the employee’s certification indicated that her condition would only last for one month.  The Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed; however, on appeal, the Third Circuit reversed.  The Third Circuit held that FMLA regulations require that if an employer determines that a medical certification is either incomplete or insufficient, it may deny the requested leave, but only after the employee has been given seven days to fix any deficiencies. The Third Circuit found Hansler's certification wasn't “negative,” meaning that on its face, it indicated Hansler did not have a “serious medical condition” because one month is not an “extended period” of time, but rather the certification was insufficient or incomplete because relevant information about her condition, including the diagnosis, was not yet available when she requested leave.  The Third Circuit found that this can be the case even if the employee’s original medical certification does not describe a condition that is covered under the FMLA. Thus, Hansler’s employer should have provided her with her seven days to cure the deficiencies in her medical certification.

Employers’ Takeaways 

  • In order to determine whether the employee's hospital stay qualifies as an overnight stay under the FMLA, it must constitute a “substantial period of time” from one calendar day to the next as measured by the individual’s time of admission and time of discharge.
  • Employers must also review medical certifications submitted in support of FMLA leave extremely carefully in order to determine whether or not the information provided is negative or is simply incomplete or insufficient.
  • In cases where the medical certification is incomplete or insufficient, employers must notify an employee and allow him or her seven days to cure the deficiencies prior to acting on the request for FMLA leave.

For more information regarding these rulings and to learn how your business should be evaluating FMLA requests, please contact John C. Petrella, Director of the firm's Employment Litigation Practice Group at jpeteralla@genovaburns.com or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@genovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

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