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Beverly Ballard worked for the Chicago Park District. Her mother, Sarah, who lived with her daughter, was diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure in 2006 and began receiving hospice support. Beverly acted as the primary caregiver for her mother, cooking her meals, administering insulin and other medications, draining fluids from her heart, and bathing and dressing her.
Sarah met with a Horizon Hospice social worker in 2007 and discussed Sarah’s end-of-life goals. Sarah said that she had always wanted to take a family trip to Las Vegas. Through the Fairy-Godmother’s Foundation, the six-day trip was scheduled.
Beverly sought unpaid leave from the Chicago Park District to accompany her mother to Las Vegas. The District ultimately denied the request, but Beverly said she was not informed of the denial prior to the trip. The two women then traveled to Las Vegas and participated in typical tourist activities. Beverly continued to serve as her mother’s caretaker during the trip. Once she drove her mother to the hospital when a fire prevented them from reaching their hotel room.
The Chicago Park District months later terminated Ballard for unauthorized absences accumulated during her trip to Las Vegas, prompting Ballard to sue under the FMLA for interference with her FMLA rights.
In the law suit, the Park District argued that the trip to Las Vegas was not related to a continuing course of medical treatment. The Park District lost at the District Court level and appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue on appeal was whether “care” in the context of an away-from-home trip is limited to services provided in connection with ongoing medical treatment.
The Court noted that “the FMLA does note define ‘care,’ so perhaps there is room to disagree about whether Ballard can be said to have cared for her mother in Las Vegas.” The Court also observed that there are various sections of the FMLA that refer to care in connection with treatment, but one section 2612(a)(1)(C) speaks in terms of “care” not “treatment.” Additionally, the Court said, “Another problem is that the FMLA’s text does not restrict care to a particular place or geographic location. For instance, it does not say that an employee is entitled to time off ‘to care at home for’ a family member.”
In attempting to resolve confusion over the legislative intent in defining “care,” the Court examined the Department of Labor’s regulations, which read as follows:
What does it mean that an employee is ‘needed to care for’ a family member?
The medical certification provision that an employee ‘is needed to care for’ a family member encompasses both physical and psychological care. It includes situations where, for example, because of a serious health condition, the family member is unable to care for his or her own basic medical hygienic, or nutritional needs or safety, or is unable to transport himself or herself to the doctor, etc. The term also includes providing psychological comfort and reassurance which would be beneficial to a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition who is receiving inpatient or home care.
In the end, the Court was persuaded by the statement in the regulations that care includes psychological assistance and that there is no specific geographic limitation. “Sarah’s basic medical, hygienic, and nutritional needs did not change while she wasin Las Vegas, and Beverly continued to assist her with those needs during the trip.” The Court rejected the argument of the Park District that care must be connected to medical treatment because the regulations never use the word “treatment” in their definition of care.
The Seventh Circuit acknowledged that its decision was counter to decisions in the Ninth and First Circuit Courts of Appeal. The Court was impressed by an inherent inconsistency within the FMLA: “If Beverly had sought leave to care for her mother in Chicago, her request would have fallen within the scope of the FMLA. So too if Sarah had lived in Las Vegas instead of with her daughter, and Beverly had requested leave to care for her mother there.”
The case may be found at Ballard v. Chicago Park District, 741F.3d 838 (7th Cir. 2014). Employers need to reflect on the judicial philosophy in their own circuit and should always try to obtain medical certifications from the physician treating the family member to see what care the physician thinks is necessary.