The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld an interesting decision regarding the scope of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees for qualified reasons, without the fear of losing their jobs. Qualified reasons include serious medical conditions, birth or adoption of a child, or even caring for a close relative with a serious medical condition. Employees should notify their employers of their intention to take FMLA leave, and employers may deny the leave if they do not believe the employee has a valid, qualified reason.
Employers have traditionally had significant discretion in denying questionable FMLA requests. However, the recent 7th Circuit decision may set a standard for the way employers must handle certain FMLA requests from employees.
Ballard v. Chicago Park District
Beverly Ballard took care of her mother, who lived with her and had been diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure. The Fairygodmother Foundation, a charity that grants terminally ill people a “wish,” notified Ballard that her mother had been given a six day trip to Las Vegas. As the primary caregiver, Ballard also received a paid trip so she could accompany her mother.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Ballard repeatedly notified her employer of her intention to use FMLA time for the trip. She never received a straight answer, except from her supervisor’s secretary, who said Ballard would be “fine” to go on the trip as long as she had the right paperwork. Therefore, Ballard went on the trip with her terminally ill mother, and was subsequently fired for unexcused absences.
The district court looked at whether going on a trip to care for a loved one is a qualified reason for FMLA leave. The court found that the FMLA simply requires that an employee need to care for an ill family member, and does not specify that the family member must be in a certain location, or that they must be receiving medical treatment during the leave. The main requirement was that the employee actually provided care for the sick family member. Since Ballard undoubtedly provided care for her mother in Las Vegas, the court found she should have been approved for job-protected FMLA leave, regardless of where the care was geographically occurring.This decision went against many previous court decisions, and the Court of Appeals recently upheld the lower court’s decision. Therefore, we may be witnessing a broadening of qualified reasons for leave under FMLA. Employers should always be careful when they are deciding whether to approve or deny FMLA leave to avoid possible legal action. Employees should also make sure their rights under FMLA are protected.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding FMLA leave, call the law office of HKM Employment Attorneys today for help.