A federal appeals court has ruled that an employer must pay an employee for
time spent outside of regular work time at required psychological treatment
sessions and traveling to and from the sessions.
Facts. Kari Sehie was hired by the city of Aurora, Illinois, as an emergency
dispatcher in 1994. Her primary duty was to field 911 calls. At the end of her
shift on December 14, 2000, Sehie's supervisors instructed her to stay
and work another 8-hour shift because a co-worker was sick. She protested, but
was required to stay. A half-hour into the new shift, Sehie became very angry
and upset because she was working another shift and abruptly left work. Between
leaving work on December 14 and returning the next day, Sehie spoke with her
therapist and took medication for her stress. When Sehie returned to work, she
reported the absence as a work-related injury.
Aurora required Sehie to submit to a fitness for duty evaluation as a result
of her leaving work on December 14. The physician who performed the evaluation,
Dr. Steven Stanard, said that Sehie was fit for duty, but recommended as a condition
of her continued employment that she attend weekly psychotherapy for 6 months.
Dr. Stanard further noted that he would reevaluate Sehie after 6 months.
Aurora adopted Dr. Stanard's recommendations and ordered Sehie to see
its therapist, Dr. Maria Nucci, outside of her regularly scheduled work hours.
Sehie requested to see her own therapist, whom she had frequently consulted,
but Aurora refused. Between February 2001 and her resignation in June 2001,
Sehie attended 16 sessions with Dr. Nucci, spending an hour at each session,
and also spent 2 hours traveling back and forth by car to each session, but
was not paid for that time.
Sehie sued Aurora under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), claiming that
Aurora should have paid her for the time she spent attending and commuting back
and forth to the counseling sessions. The district court agreed, and Aurora
Ruling. Aurora argued that the counseling sessions were not primarily
for its own benefit, but that medical treatment always primarily and necessarily
benefits the employee, and
that the medical treatment here was mandated by Aurora did not alter
this fact. Aurora also claimed that
the medical treatment was necessarily and primarily for the benefit of Sehie,
because it would minimize the chance that she would again abandon her job and
lose her job as a result.
The court noted, however, that the counseling sessions were a mandatory condition
of Sehie's continued employment. This requirement, combined with the fact
that Aurora was short on telecommunications staff, created a strong inference
that sessions were for Aurora's benefit. In addition, the court found it
odd that Aurora would not let Sehie see her own therapist if Aurora believed
that these counseling sessions were for her benefit. In fact, Aurora paid for
90 percent of the cost of the sessions with Dr. Nucci, while Sehie would most
likely have paid the full cost if Aurora had let her fulfill the requirement
by seeing her own therapist.
The evidence showed that the purpose of the required counseling sessions was
to enable Sehie to perform her job duties and relate to co-workers more effectively
and at a higher skill level by addressing personality deficiencies and problems
that predated the events of December 14, 2000. It was thus reasonable for the
district court to conclude that the purpose of these counseling sessions was
for Aurora to help Sehie manage her emotional problems, thus ensuring that she
would properly responded to emergency calls and stay on the job in a position
that was short-staffed. These reasons all primarily benefitted Aurora.
Aurora also argued that DOL regulations (29 CFR 785.43) stand for the proposition
that an employee who receives treatment for a work-related injury can receive
compensation only if the treatment is required by the employer and it occurs
during the employee's scheduled hours of work.
Sehie countered that this regulation
is merely a definition of "hours worked" in one particular situation
out of many, and is not, as the district court noted, an "all-encompassing
regulation that defines the entire universe of what is and what is not hours
The appeals court rejected Aurora's rigid reading of the regulation, noting
that the regulations were not intended to specify every instance of what constitutes
The court emphasized the very specific nature of its inquiry and stated that
this ruling does not mean that every time an employer gets help for its employees,
the employee must be compensated for hours worked. Sehie v. City of Aurora,
No. 03 C 945, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (12/27/05).