To qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an individual
must meet one of the defined qualifying situations. One such situation requires
a serious health condition that incapacitates an employee for "more than
three calendar days," along with subsequent treatment for the condition.
Just what "more than three calendar days" means has long been an issue
for FMLA administrators. One court recently tackled this issue and settled it—for
now, at least.
Margaret Russell worked for North Broward Hospital as a Patient Accounts Adjustment
Representative. She had been disciplined for three unscheduled absences. Per
the Hospital's policy, Russell risked termination for further absenteeism. On
May 31, 2000, Russell slipped and fell at work. She had fractured her right
elbow and an ankle, as well as aggravating an existing wrist injury. Russell's
physician prescribed pain medication, and certified that she was able to return
to work with restrictions on using her right arm. Over the next ten days, Russell's
attendance at work was spotty, due to what she called "excruciating pain."
Several times she reported to work in the morning, only to feel too ill to stay
the full day. Some of her absences were excused; some were not. On June 12,
Russell was terminated for excessive absenteeism.
Russell filed suit against the Hospital, claiming that her right to take FMLA
leave for a serious health condition had been violated. Among other qualifying
events, the FMLA provides that an eligible employee is entitled to 12 weeks
of leave in a 12-month period for a serious health condition that involves a
"period of incapacity…of more than three consecutive calendar days."
Russell claimed that her situation met this definition, and that the Hospital
had violated her FMLA rights by terminating her instead of providing her with
Russell argued that she had been incapacitated from May 31 to June 6, and
that that fact satisfied the FMLA's three-day requirement. She did not claim
that she was at any point incapacitated for three consecutive full days or more;
rather, she argued that partial days of incapacity were enough to satisfy the
FMLA's requirement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was faced
with deciding a new question—whether consecutive partial days of incapacity
count towards the FMLA's requirement.
The court looked to the plain language of the statute—and to a dictionary—to
decide this question. The FMLA states that "a period of incapacity…of
more than three consecutive calendar days" is needed to qualify for leave
under the relevant portion of the statute. The court looked at the definitions
of "period" and "calendar day," as defined by Random House
Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 1993). According to the relevant definitions,
a "period" is "any specified division or portion of time,"
and a "calendar day" is "the period from one midnight to the
following midnight." Thus, the court concluded, a "calendar day"
refers to a whole day, not just a part of a day, meaning that the statute requires
more than three full calendar days of incapacity to qualify for FMLA leave under
this part of the law.
In addition, the court felt that this interpretation met with Congress' intentions
in drafting the law. Requiring three full days of incapacity, reasoned the court,
would ensure that qualifying serious health conditions were indeed serious,
as Congress intended. If partial days were allowed, said the court, how much
incapacity would qualify? Fifteen minutes each day? Five hours? The court noted
that adopting such an interpretation of the law would lead to mayhem and confusion
for employers left to administer this law. Thus, ruled the court, Russell did
not have a serious health condition as defined by the statute, and therefore
her termination did not violate the FMLA (Russell v. North Broward Hosp.
(11th Cir. 2003)).