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Vegas Vacation: Is It FMLA Protected?

Beverly Ballard cared for her terminally ill mother, Sarah, on a daily basis. Sarah received a grant to take a family vacation to Vegas. Ballard requested, but was denied, FMLA leave to travel with her mother. She took the trip anyway and her employer, Chicago Park District, terminated her for unauthorized absences.  Ballard sued alleging violations of the Family Medical Leave Act. After the trial court denied the Park District’s motion for summary judgment, it was granted an interlocutory appeal.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed.   At issue on appeal was the FMLA’s family care provision, which allows employees leave to “care for” a family member with a serious health condition.   But neither the FMLA nor the Department of Labor regulations interpreting the Act define “care.”   The employer, Park District, argued that “routine support” during the trip did not qualify as “care” under the FMLA. According to Park District, the FMLA required a “continuing course of medical treatment.”

The Seventh Circuit, however, took a broader view of the care provision, holding that ongoing medical treatment is not required in order for it to apply. The FMLA, the Seventh Circuit reasoned, speaks in terms of “care,” not “treatment,” and does not limit where care could be provided. The Court held that despite the trip qualifying as a vacation, “Sarah’s basic medical, hygienic and nutritional needs did not change” while in Las Vegas, and Beverly continued to assist with those needs during the trip.

The decision creates a split in authorities which may ripen the issue for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The First and Ninth Circuits, for example, hold that travel unrelated to medical treatment is not supported by the FMLA. In seeking (unsuccessfully) to persuade the Seventh Circuit to follow suit, Park District argued that a contrary ruling would invite abuse by employees. Employees, Park District argued, might bring sick family members along on pleasure trips in order to characterize their leave as FMLA leave. The Court was not persuaded. It noted that employers who might be concerned about such abuses can request medical assurances from the family member’s health care providers.

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