Not long ago, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that a woman’s trip to Las Vegas during her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time off from work did not violate the requirements of the law. The FMLA permits a “qualified” employee to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical reasons, in order to care for a sick family member, or in the case of pregnancy or adoption. Qualified employees are those who work at companies with 50 or more employees and have worked more than 1,250 hours within the preceding 12 months.
In Ballard v. Chicago Park District, Beverly Ballard was a Chicago municipal employee who was the primary caregiver of her mother, who suffered from end-stage congestive heart failure. Ballard lived with her mother while she began to receive hospice support through Horizon Hospice and Palliative Care. Ballard’s care of her mother included cooking meals, administering insulin and other medications, draining fluid from her heart, bathing and dressing her, and helping her go to bed. In 2007, Ballard’s mother informed Horizon that one of her end-life goals was to go on a trip to Las Vegas. The trip was funded through the Fairygodmother Foundation and was expected to last six days in January 2008.
Ballard made a request with the Chicago Park District for unpaid leave so that she could join her mother, but her employer denied her request. However, there was a dispute as to whether Ballard had provided sufficient advance notice, and she was unaware of the denial before taking the trip. During the stay in Las Vegas, while Ballard participated in tourist activities with her mother, she continued to act as her caregiver. Several months later, Ballard was terminated from her job due to unauthorized absences that accumulated during her trip, and she filed a lawsuit under the FMLA.
The Chicago Park District argued that Ballard did not qualify for FMLA leave because she did not really “care” for her mother during the Las Vegas trip, because Ballard already cared for her mother, and because the trip was not related to a continuing course of medical treatment. The district court ruled against the Park District, noting that as long as Ballard provided care for her mother, where she provided care had no bearing on whether she received FMLA protections. The Park District then appealed.
The Seventh Circuit noted that the plain language of the law stated that the purpose was to “care” for a family member with a serious health condition, not “provide treatment” for that person. The Court also noted that the text of the FMLA did not restrict the caregiver’s care to a specific geographic location, such as “at home.” Instead, the only limitation was that the family member have a serious medical condition. The Court underscored its findings by looking at the definition of “care” in the Department of Labor Regulations: the Regulations defined care as both “physical and psychological” and had no geographic or physical limitation. As such, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling and found that Ballard’s care met the FMLA qualifications. It is an important ruling for any employee who has had the difficult task of caring for a seriously ill loved one.
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