Donnelly v. Greenburgh: FMLA “Hours Worked” Includes Prep Time at Home

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In a decision likely to cast an influence across state and federal jurisdictions, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in a case involving a teacher who was allegedly denied tenure for taking time off to have gallbladder surgery. See Donnelly v. Greenburgh Cent. Sch. Dist., No. 11-2448 (2d Cir. Aug. 10, 2012) (order reversing grant of summary judgment) (available here).

A key issue in the dispute is the plaintiff’s eligibility for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which is triggered by exceeding a threshold of 1,250 hours worked during the preceding year. Order at 6-7. The plaintiff worked 172 school days in the 12 months prior to his surgery, and under his union contract, each workday was capped at 7.25 hours. Based on those figures, the plaintiff worked only 1,247 hours — 3 hours short of the requisite 1,250. However, the plaintiff argued (and the Second Circuit agreed) that courts should look beyond the employer-defined workday when calculating hours worked for purposes of determining FMLA eligibility.

In its assessment of whether the plaintiff met the FMLA threshold, the Second Circuit recognized that teachers typically work beyond the mandated 7.25-hour workday, either outside the classroom or without students present. Id. at 18-19. Thus, even though the plaintiff was not required to remain at work after 7.25 hours, he would nonetheless have had to use time at home to prepare for class. In reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, the panel found that: “The law does not preclude teachers who grade papers or plan their lessons at home from ever counting that time for purposes of FMLA eligibility.” Id. at 24.

The panel’s reasoning has implications beyond the classroom setting. The Donnelly court analogized to a Sixth Circuit case involving flight attendants and satisfaction of the FMLA hours-worked threshold. While the plaintiff in that case ultimately lost, the court held that her FMLA eligibility should be based on all hours worked, including time spent at check-in or customs that extended beyond her mandated workday. When she presented evidence that the 1,250-hour requirement was met, the court shifted the burden to her employer to prove that she could not have met the threshold, even with the additional hours worked. See id. at 17-18, citing Staunch v. Cont’l Airlines Inc., 511 F.3d 625 (6th Cir. 2008). These results suggest a broader application of the doctrine that hours worked are not strictly confined to formally designated workdays.