The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member such as a spouse, child, or parent, if the family member has a serious health condition. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(C). What qualifies as “caring for” a family member isn’t always clear, however. In a win for employees, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that taking a terminally ill loved one on an end-of-life trip qualifies as “caring for” a family member, and accordingly, is protected leave under the FMLA.
In Ballard v. Chicago Park District, Beverly Ballard was fired from her job with the Chicago Park District after she took her terminally ill mother on an end-of-life trip to Las Vegas. It was undisputed that Ballard cared for her mother at their home in Chicago. Ballard was her mother’s primary caregiver, and was responsible for feeding and bathing her mother, as well as administering her medication. However, the Chicago Park District argued that the FMLA did not protect Ballard’s trip to Las Vegas because the trip was not related to an ongoing course of medical treatment.
The district court disagreed, finding that “[s]o 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.” 900 F. Supp. 2d 804, 812 (N.D. Ill. 2012).
The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The Court noted that on its face, the FMLA provision at issue refers to “care” of a family member, and not “treatment.” Furthermore, the FMLA does not restrict care of a family member to care given at home. The court found that Ballard continued to provide her mother with her basic medical, hygienic, and nutritional needs while visiting Las Vegas, and noted that due to an emergency at the hotel, Ballard was required to find her mother another source of insulin and pain medication. Accordingly, the FMLA protected Ballard’s trip to Las Vegas.
Interestingly, the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in the Ballard case is at odds with prior decisions by other federal courts. The First and Ninth Circuits have held that, for an employee’s leave to care for a family member to be protected under the FMLA, the care must be related to a family member’s medical treatment.