Articles Posted in Family Medical Leave

By William W. Bowser

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an eligible employee can take up to 12 weeks of protected leave for his or her own “serious health condition.” A “serious health condition” is defined by Department of Labor’s regulations as one “that involves inpatient care … or continuing treatment by a health care provider.” While many FMLA cases have focused on the meaning of “continuing treatment,” the definition of “inpatient care” has seen little review. A recent decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Delaware, recently focused on the issue.

Jeff Bonkowski worked for Oberg Industries as a wirecut operator and machinist. During a meeting with his supervisors on November 14, 2011, Bonkowski began to experience shortness of breath. His supervisors gave him permission to go home and he clocked out at 5:18 p.m. Shortly after 11 p.m., Bonkowski’s wife drove him to the hospital. Although he arrived at the hospital before midnight, he was not admitted into the hospital until shortly after midnight on November 15th. As we will see, these few minutes would be very important.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor created a lot of uncertainty in the area of federal employment benefits. Because the federal government’s definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman was held to be unconstitutional, the decision left open the question of when same-sex couples were eligible for spousal benefits in a variety of contexts. In a move that is sure to simplify issues for multi-state employers, the Department of Labor is taking steps to clarify that issue under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA).


The FMLA is a federal law providing unpaid leave to employees who have worked for a company for at least twelve months, and who worked at least 1,250 hours in the calendar year preceding the request for leave. Leave may be taken for a variety of reasons, including to care for a spouse with a serious health condition. Thus, a key consideration in determining eligibility for FMLA leave is whether the person for whom you intend to care is a “spouse” under applicable law. The term “spouse” used to be defined by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). However, DOMA’s definition of marriage was declared to be unconstitutional under the Windsor decision.

Back by popular demand!  Our FMLA Master Class, presented in conjunction with BLR and HR Hero, is always the most requested seminar from clients and seminar participants.  So, at your request, we’ve brought it back. 

If your organization is subject to the Family Medical Leave Act or if you are nearing 50 employees, you should consider joining us on February 12, 2014, for this in-depth, full-day program. 

You can learn more about the program and register online.  We’ll look forward to seeing you then!

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) took effect 20 years ago.  To celebrate, the DOL released a survey on the impact and use of the FMLA.  According to the DOL, the survey found that “misuse of the FMLA is rare.”

Now, for those of you who have not laughed yourself right out of your chair, congratulations. For the rest of us, the reality is that FMLA abuse is, in many, many workplaces, a significant problem and, I bet many employers would say, maybe the most misused workplace law today.  Of course, I don’t have a survey to back up my conclusions. But there you have them, anyway.

Putting aside the issue of employee misuse and abuse, employer compliance with the FMLA is difficult, to say the least. It’s a very technical statute and seemingly harmless oversights can land an employer in court. 

The FMLA turned 20 last week and there has been a flurry of articles and posts discussing how the FMLA has changed the workplace, whether it imposes too high of a burden on employers, and predicting how it will likely continue to evolve. All of the academic commentary aside, though, we all know that the FMLA is no easy row to hoe. The truth is that the law is a very technical one and its application must comply with very detailed technical requirements.

Which is why we get all sorts of excited over FMLA cases that are resolved in favor of employers. The case du jour is precisely that–a win for the employer. It’s such a great set of facts, though, that I’m going to switch up the normal order of things and start today’s post with my “lessons learned.” Admittedly, they’re a bit snarkier than usual. But, I dare say, spot on.

5 lessons for employees to learn from Lineberry v. Richards:

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) celebrated its 20th birthday this week. And boy, oh boy, was the DOL was ready to celebrate!

And what kind of birthday would it be without a party? Acting Secretary of Labor Harris hosted a commemoration program that featured celebrity special guests, including former President Bill Clinton, former Senator Christopher Dodd, and former labor secretary Hilda Solis, among others. The entire program, which lasts about an hour, is viewable on YouTube.

But wait, there’s more!! On February 5, the actual anniversary of the day the FMLA was signed into law, the DOL issued a final rule implementing expansions that cover military families and airline flight crews. Under the rule, military family members can take leave to care for a covered veteran who is seriously ill or injured. They can now take additional time, up to 15 days of leave, to be with a service member who is on leave from active duty. Additionally, the rule expands the FMLA’s protections to airline pilots and flight crews who were frequently ineligible for FMLA due to their unique work schedule.

Yesterday, I presented a section of the FMLA Master Class. In my session, we discussed mandatory return-to-work exams done by the employer’s selected doctors. There were lots of questions on this issue as many employers continue to require return-to-work exams as a matter of course before employee can return to work after FMLA leave. In many instances, such a practice will be in violation of the ADA and the FMLA. I promised a more thorough discussion of the issue, so here it is.

FMLA Regulations on Return-To-Work and Fitness-for-Duty Exams

The FMLA regulations state the following:

An employee does not become eligible to take FMLA leave until he or she has worked at least 1,250 hours and 12 months. But, according to the 11th Circuit, being eligible to take leave is not the same as being eligible to request leave. Employers should be mindful of the court’s recent opinion when a recently hired employee submits a request for FMLA.

In Pereda v. Brookdale Senior Living Communities, Inc., the plaintiff-employee submitted a request to take FMLA. At the time the request was made, she had not yet passed her one-year anniversary, making her ineligible to take leave. However, the requested leave would have begun after the 12-month mark, when she would have been eligible for FMLA. The employer terminated her before the end of her first year.

The 11th Circuit was asked to decide whether the employee could pursue a claim under the FMLA. In order to make that decision, the court had to determine whether the employee could be considered an “eligible employee” for purposes of the FMLA. As you may imagine, the employer argued that the employee was not an “eligible employee” at the time she was terminated and, therefore, was not protected by the statute.

New FMLA forms appear to be around the corner. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a set of forms, which were intended to assist employers in reviewing and granting requests for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Updated forms have been submitted to the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but have not yet been approved.

Until new forms are issued, the U.S. DOL has indicated that the old forms may continue to be used. However, employers should note that the 2008 forms do not account for recent changes in the law. The most significant change since the forms were issued is the publication of regulations implementing the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The GINA regulations were issued in 2010 and took effect in January 2011.

GINA generally prohibits employers from obtaining employees’ genetic information, except in limited circumstances. Because of the broad scope of GINA’s prohibition, many employers were concerned about its impact on their businesses. The regulations issued in 2010 addressed many of these concerns, and created an exception where employers inadvertently obtain an employee’s genetic information. In order to take advantage of this exception, employers are advised to include “safe-harbor” language in medical forms, including FMLA documentation. We’ve addressed the FMLA-GINA safe-harbor issue and provided sample language in previous posts. The 2008 FMLA forms issued do not contain this safe-harbor language, so employers should consider adding it as a temporary solution until new forms are approved.

Can an individual supervisor be held liable when an employee files suit? Well, like all legal questions, it depends. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion yesterday expanding the instances when the answer to this question is yes in Haybarger v. Lawrence County Adult Probation & Parole, No. 10-3916 (3d Cir. Jan. 31, 2012).


The plaintiff, Debra Haybarger, was the office manager for Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole, an agency of the Lawrence County of Court of Common Pleas. Haybarger reported to Director William Mancino who, turn, reported to Court Adminstrator Michael Occhibone. Occhibone reported to the President Judge of the Court, Judge Dominick Motto.

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