A famous tourism slogan tells us, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But a trip to Nevada’s larg- est city was much discussed in Ballard v. Chicago Park District. Here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided whether an employer had violated an employee’s rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The female plaintiff was a Chicago Park District (CPD) employee. In April 2006, her mother was diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure and began receiving hospice care. The plaintiff lived with her mother, acting as her primary caregiver.
One of the plaintiff’s mother’s end-of-life goals was to visit Las Vegas. The plaintiff requested unpaid leave from the CPD so that she could accompany her mother on the trip, which occurred in January 2008. During their time together in Las Vegas, the plaintiff continued to serve as her mother’s primary caregiver while the two participated in tourist activities. For example, the plaintiff drove her mother to a hospital when a fire unexpectedly prevented them from reaching their hotel room where her mother’s medicine was located.
Several months later, the CPD terminated the plaintiff for the unauthorized absences that accumulated during the Las Vegas trip.
Treatment vs. care
The plaintiff filed suit alleging FMLA violations. The CPD moved for summary judgment, arguing that she didn’t “care for” her mother in Las Vegas because she was already providing home care and the trip wasn’t related to medical treatment. The district court denied the motion, explaining that, as 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.” The CPD appealed.
Under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to leave to care for family members with serious health condi- tions. On appeal, the CPD asked the Seventh Circuit to read the FMLA as limiting “care,” at least in the context of an away-from-home trip, only to services provided in connection with ongoing medical treatment. But the court noted that one problem with the CPD’s argument is that the section of the FMLA in question refers to “care,” not “treatment.”
A second problem was that the FMLA’s text doesn’t restrict care to a particular place or geographic location. Indeed, the only limitation placed on care is that the family member cared for must have a serious health condition.
The Seventh Circuit admitted that the FMLA doesn’t define “care,” and there was room for disagreement regarding whether the plaintiff truly “cared for” her mother while in Las Vegas. So the court looked at a closely related Department of Labor regulation and found that there, too, “care” is defined expansively to include “physical and psychological care” — again without any geographic limitation.
The CPD also argued that, if the plaintiff’s FMLA inter- pretation were accepted, employees would help them- selves to FMLA leave to take personal vacations simply by bringing along seriously ill family members. The Seventh Circuit rejected this argument by noting that, “even if we credit [this] concern … what we may consider a more sensible result cannot justify a judicial rewrite of the FMLA.”
If an employer receives an FMLA leave request like the plaintiff’s, it’s advisable to require the applicant to obtain a health care provider’s certification of his or her family member’s serious health condition. At minimum, this will provide some verifying documentation.