Ballard v. Chicago Park District

Decision: The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) entitles qualified employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in order to provide physical and psychological care for a seriously ill family remember, regardless of the geographic area where the care is provided. Beverly Ballard, a municipal park manager for the Chicago Park District, was the primary caregiver for her terminally ill mother. After securing funding from a nonprofit that facilitates end-of-life trips, Ballard requested unpaid leave from her job so that she could accompany her mother on the trip to Las Vegas. The Park District denied the request and later fired Ballard for her unauthorized absence resulting from the trip. Ballard sued for violation of the FMLA. The district court denied the Park District’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the geographical location where care for a seriously ill family member takes place is not relevant to whether a worker receives FMLA protections.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting the Park District’s argument that Ballard did not “care for” her mother as contemplated in the FMLA during the Las Vegas trip, because the away-from-home trip did not involve ongoing medical treatment. The court held that the FMLA uses the term “care” rather than “treatment” when explaining who qualifies for protected leave. Further, the court noted that the FMLA’s text does not reference the geographic location where such care must take place. Finding that her mother’s basic needs did not change during the trip to Las Vegas, the court found that Ballard’s absence was for the purpose of providing care and, therefore, fell within the FMLA’s protection. Finally, the court indicated that its holding was a narrow one: “[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.”

Impact: This case clarifies for employers that, at least in the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin), geographic location is not a relevant consideration for purposes of determining an employee’s entitlement to FMLA leave. While the Seventh Circuit’s ruling seems to be limited to the palliative care context, it is not clear in what other circumstances the court might find out-of-town travel to be covered by the FMLA. The law on this topic is not uniform across the federal circuits, and employers should consult counsel when presented with an employee’s request for FMLA leave to cover out-of-town travel.