Why it matters: In a cautionary tale for employers, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an employee’s request for time off from work to accompany her mother on a trip to Las Vegas was covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act because the employee took the leave to “care for” her mother. The unanimous panel emphasized that the statute does not contain geographical limitations and that the same care provided by the employee – helping her mother bathe and dress, administering insulin and other medications, and cooking her meals – would have occurred at home or on a recreational trip. The decision also creates a split in the federal appellate courts, reaching a different conclusion from the First and Ninth Circuits.

Detailed Discussion

Beverly Ballard acted as the primary caregiver for her mother, Sarah, who was diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure. Sarah received hospice support but Ballard cooked her mother’s meals, administered insulin and other medications, drained fluids from her heart, bathed and dressed her, and prepared her for bed.

At a meeting with a hospice social worker, Sarah said she had always wanted to visit Las Vegas. With funding from the Fairygodmother Foundation (a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for adults with terminal illnesses), a six-day trip was scheduled for Sarah and Ballard.

Ballard requested unpaid leave from her job with the Chicago Park District. Although her request was denied, Ballard went on the trip. In Las Vegas, the two participated in typical tourist activities. Ballard continued to help her mother as usual and also drove her to a hospital when a fire prevented them from reaching their hotel room, where Sarah’s medication was stored.

A few months later, Ballard was terminated for unauthorized leave. She sued under the FMLA.

Under Section 2612(a)(1)(C) of the FMLA, eligible employees have a right to 12 workweeks of leave “[i]n order to care for the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent, of the employee, if such spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health condition.”

Ballard’s efforts in Las Vegas qualified as “caring for” her mother under the Act, the Seventh Circuit said.

“[T]he FMLA’s text does not restrict care to a particular place or geographic location,” the court said. “For instance, it does not 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. We are reluctant, without good reason, to read in another limitation that Congress has not provided.”

The panel also turned to regulations from the Department of Labor for support. Although the FMLA does not define “care” and no regulations specifically interpret Section 2612(a)(1)(C), the DOL regulations “define ‘care’ to include ‘physical and psychological care’ – again without any geographic limitation,” the court said. Further, examples found in the regulations “of what constitutes physical care use no location-specific language whatsoever.”

“Sarah’s basic medical, hygienic, and nutritional needs did not change while she was in Las Vegas, and Beverly continued to assist her with those needs during the trip,” the panel wrote. “In fact . . . [Ballard’s] presence proved quite important indeed when a fire at the hotel made it impossible to reach their room, requiring [Ballard] to find another source of insulin and pain medicine. Thus, at the very least, Ballard requested leave in order to provide physical care. That, in turn, is enough to satisfy § 2612(a)(1)(C).”

The court rejected the employer’s argument that Ballard’s “care” needed to be connected to Sarah’s ongoing medical treatment. Neither the statute nor the DOL’s regulations use the term “treatment” in the definition of care. “Rather, they speak in terms of basic medical, hygienic, and nutritional needs – needs that, as in this case, do not change merely because a person is not undergoing active medical treatment,” the court said. “And it would be odd to read an ongoing-treatment requirement into the definition of ‘care’ when the definition of ‘serious health condition’ explicitly states that active treatment is not a prerequisite.”

A floodgates argument also failed to sway the court. “[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,” the panel wrote.

“If [Ballard] had sought leave to care for her mother in Chicago, her request would have fallen within the scope of the FMLA,” the court concluded. “So too if Sarah had lived in Las Vegas instead of with her daughter, and [Ballard] had requested leave to care for her mother there. Ultimately, other than a concern that our straightforward reading will ‘open the door to increased FMLA requests,’ the Park District gives us no reason to treat the current scenario any differently.”

To read the opinion in Ballard v. Chicago Park District, click here.