The Family and Medical Leave Act provides unpaid leave for employees to care for certain relatives with serious health conditions. Over the past several years, a number of federal courts have addressed whether FMLA leave rights apply to employees who seek to accompany sick relatives who travel for vacation rather than medical treatment purposes. Last month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals broke with other federal appellate courts and extended FMLA leave rights for such travel.

In Ballard v. Chi. Park Dist., the plaintiff’s mother suffered from serious heart disease. She was approved for intermittent FMLA leave to provide care for her mother. The mother’s hospice care arranged for a family trip to Las Vegas, and the plaintiff requested FMLA leave to care for her mother during the trip. The employer denied the request as outside of its FMLA obligation, and terminated the employee for unauthorized absences relating to the trip. She sued, but the district court dismissed the claim on summary judgment.

The Seventh Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the matter for trial. The court broadly read the FMLA’s family care provision, refusing to limit it to care during travel that involves medical treatment. The Seventh Circuit also could find no geographical limitation in the FMLA that would restrict leave rights to family members who do not travel.

This decision directly contradicts cases from the First and Ninth Circuits holding that FMLA care for a family member presumes some form of continuing medical treatment. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides to review this decision, employee FMLA rights in this situation will depend on the federal appellate circuit where the employee works. Employers should monitor this situation to determine their legal obligations in response to individual employee leave requests.