Human Resources News & Insights

It’s official: Trip to Las Vegas qualifies as sanctioned FMLA leave

A federal appeals court has spoken: An employee who provided care for her terminally ill mother was entitled to take FMLA leave to accompany her on a trip to Las Vegas.  

Here’s the story:

Beverly Ballard worked for the Chicago Park District. In April 2006, her mother, Sarah, was diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure and began receiving hospice services.

Beverly lived with Sarah and acted as her primary caregiver — among other things, she cooked her mother’s meals, administered insulin and other medication, drained fluids from her heart, bathed and dressed her, and prepared her for bed.

After Sarah told a hospice social worker that she had always wanted to take a family trip to Las Vegas, the social worker was able to secure funding from a nonprofit organization that facilitated these sorts of opportunities for terminally ill adults. A six-day trip was scheduled.

Ballard requested unpaid leave from the Chicago Park District so that she could accompany her mother to Las Vegas. The Park District denied the request — although Ballard claimed she was not informed of the denial prior to the trip.

Ballard and her mother traveled to Las Vegas as planned, where they spent time together and participated in typical tourist activities. Ballard continued to serve as her mother’s caretaker during the trip.

Subsequently, Ballard was fired for her “unauthorized absence” during the Vegas trip. She filed suit under the FMLA.

‘Not related to treatment’

In a motion to dismiss the case, the Park District argued that Ballard did not “care for” her mother in Las Vegas because she was already providing Sarah with care at home and because the trip was not related to a continuing course of medical treatment.

But the district court denied the motion, explaining that “[s]o long as the employee provides `care’ to the family member, where the care takes place has no bearing on whether the employee receives FMLA protections.”

And an appeals court agreed.

No geographical restrictions in FMLA

In its opinion, the appeals court noted FMLA’s text doesn’t restrict care to a particular place or geographic location. For instance, it doesn’t say that an employee is entitled to time off “to care at home for” a family member. The only limitation it places on care is that the family member must have a serious health condition.

The care emphasized the definition of care, quoting the law:

The medical certification provision that an employee is “needed to care for” a family member encompasses both physical and psychological care.

It includes situations where, for example, because of a serious health condition, the family member is unable to care for his or her own basic medical, hygienic, or nutritional needs or safety, or is unable to transport himself or herself to the doctor, etc.

The term also includes providing psychological comfort and reassurance which would be beneficial to a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition who is receiving inpatient or home care.

The court summed up: Sarah’s basic medical, hygienic and nutritional needs didn’t change while she was in Las Vegas, and Beverly continued to assist her with those needs during the trip. In fact, Beverly’s presence proved quite important indeed when a fire at the hotel made it impossible to reach their room, requiring Beverly to find another source of insulin and pain medicine.

So will this ruling open the floodgates for employees to be jetting off to tropical climes, using sick loved ones as an excuse for taking FMLA leave?

The court had some thoughts on the possibility:

[W]e note that an employer concerned about the risk that employees will abuse the FMLA’s leave provisions may of course require that requests be certified by the family member’s health care provider. … And any worries about opportunistic leave-taking in this case should be tempered by the fact that this dispute arises out of the hospice and palliative care context.

The case is Ballard v. Chicago Park District.






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