FMLA covers seeking out daycare for children with Autism, federal judge in Pa. rules

By Jon Campisi | Dec 5, 2012

A federal judge sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has sided with the mother

of a special needs child in a case in which the plaintiff sued her former place of employment because she alleged her firing was due to her need to take federal medical leave.

U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage ruled in favor Rachel A. Wegelin in her case against The Reading Hospital and Medical Center, which is located in Lancaster County, Pa.

In a Nov. 29 memorandum opinion and order, Savage ruled that Wegelin was, in fact, entitled to take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act in order to find alternative daycare arrangements for her daughter, who suffers from pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), which is a form of Autism, and congenital blindness in one eye.

Wegelin was terminated from her job of 13 years as a technician assistant at the hospital on Jan. 25, 2010, after she failed to report for duty, the record shows.

According to her lawsuit, Wegelin had notified her supervisors that she would need to take some time off from work to make new daycare arrangements for her now 8-year-old daughter.

Problems began after Wegelin got into some trouble for parking her vehicle closer to the hospital’s main building, and not in a designated parking garage about two blocks from the main building, all because she didn’t want to aggravate a sinus condition for which she had recently had corrective surgery.

Wegelin claimed that her supervisors knew of her sinus condition as well as a 5:30 p.m. deadline by which she had to pick up her daughter, Carolyn, from a nearby daycare center.

The plaintiff therefore notified her employer that she would need to make new arrangements for her child since she would not be able to get to the girl by pickup time if she was required to park in the parking garage, the lawsuit had stated.

“Thereafter, Plaintiff was forced to ‘call in’ each day and notify her supervisor that she was not coming to work and was arranging for ongoing care for Carolyn so she could continue her 13 year career working for TRHMC,” the lawsuit had stated.

Soon after Wegelin filed suit, the hospital moved for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiff was not entitled to FMLA leave because her daughter did not suffer from a “serious health condition” and Wegelin was not “needed to care for” her daughter, according to court papers.

The court, however, ended up denying summary judgment because, as Savage stated, there are genuine issues of fact regarding whether Wegelin’s daughter had a “serious health condition” as defined in the Family and Medical Leave Act, and whether Wegelin needed to care for her daughter when she had to make arrangements to transfer the girl to another daycare agency.

In explaining the court’s decision, Savage wrote that making arrangements for “changes in care” is expressly covered under the FMLA.

“The fact that Carolyn’s daycare is not a specialized facility is not dispositive,” the judge wrote. “What is relevant is that Carolyn has a chronic serious health condition resulting in an inability to perform regular daily activities and Wegelin had to make arrangements to find a suitable daycare that could care for her.”

The court decision went on to state that because the daycare facility at the Bowmansville church, where Wegelin originally opted to send her child, was no longer available, Wegelin was entitled to continued leave in order to find suitable arrangements for her daughter’s care.

“Therefore, when Reading Hospital changed Wegelin’s parking assignment, she had to make arrangements for a change in Carolyn’s care, entitling Wegelin to FMLA leave,” Savage wrote.

Reading Hospital had earlier contended that Wegelin’s attempts to find alternative daycare arrangements for the young girl did not constitute a “need to care for” Carolyn due to the child’s medical condition, in keeping with the FMLA’s provision that such leave does not cover “every family emergency.”

Savage, however, wrote that Wegelin’s testimony that she was trying to find a daycare agency that would be qualified to care for her daughter and the girl’s special needs, as well as one that could meet her schedule, had merit.

The Legal Intelligencer newspaper in Philadelphia reported that Savage’s opinion was released on the same day that the case apparently closed after settling, although specifics with regard to the settlement were not immediately available.

Wegelin was represented by John Bucolo of the Wyomissing, Pa. firm of Rauch & Bucolo, while Vincent Candiello, of Harrisburg’s Post & Schell, represented the defendant hospital.

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