Employers with more than 50 employees are usually aware that the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may apply to their business and their workers. That law, which provides for protected leave for employees in certain situations and various amounts (most often up to 12 weeks of leave), can sound simple but is very complex in its details.

Hospital BedFor example, take the issue of what is an “overnight stay” by an employee at a hospital or similar facility.  The definition of “overnight stay” matters, because an overnight stay is the type of event that constitutes inpatient care and can trigger an employee’s right to FMLA leave, possibly protecting the employee from discipline or termination due to that absence from work.

In the case decided by a federal appellate court, the employee began experiencing chest pain, dizziness and shortness of breath at work late in the afternoon of November 14.  He claims he got permission from his managers to leave work early, and late that evening he went to a hospital, being formally admitted for treatment after 12 a.m. on Nov. 15.  (Note that time for later.  It is important.)  He underwent tests and was released later in the evening on Nov. 15.

When he came back to work he was terminated for walking off the job on Nov. 14.  Apparently, there was a dispute about whether he really had the permission of his managers to leave work early that day (and clearly there was some doubt by his employer of whether his claim of being ill was real or not).  The employee ultimately filed suit, claiming his termination violated the FMLA because his absence from work was inpatient care at a hospital protected by the FMLA.  So his FMLA claim hinged on whether his care at the hospital counted as an “overnight stay.”

The appeals court ruled that it did not.  It decided that to be an “overnight stay” the care at the hospital must span over two calendar days.  This employee’s treatment at the hospital, while significant, all occurred on Nov. 15.  The court also suggested (without ruling) that a minimum stay of at least 8 hours over those two calendar days was also likely necessary for it to be an overnight stay, but it did not need to reach that conclusion in this case, since this employee’s time at the hospital was all within one calendar day.

So now we know (at least according to one federal appellate court) what an overnight stay really is under the FMLA — a hospitalization that starts at or before 11:59 p.m. on one day and lasts well into the next day.  Good to know.  Did you ever think such a small detail as when an employee checked into a hospital would determine the outcome of an employment lawsuit?  It just goes to show that in employment law, and especially with the FMLA, small details can have a very big impact.