A recent decision from the Northern District of Illinois greatly expands when an employer may have to grant Family and Medical Leave (“FMLA“) for an employer to care for a spouse, parent or child with a serious health condition. In short, going on vacation may now be grounds for protected FMLA leave.
In Ballard v. Chicago Park District, Ms. Ballard was the primary caregiver for her mother who was suffering from end stage congestive heart failure. The Fairygodmother Foundation (akin to Make a Wish) granted Ms. Ballard’s mother a six-day trip to Las Vegas. Ms. Ballard asked for FMLA leave, and her employer, like I’m sure most of you would, denied her FMLA leave to go on vacation. Ms. Ballard went on the trip anyway and was terminated for being on unauthorized leave.
Ms. Ballard sued for FMLA interference. On a summary judgment motion, the Court held, in a departure from a long line of cases, that the trip qualified as care for a parent with a serious health condition even though there were no plans to seek medical attention on the trip.
This is the season where I get a lot of calls from employers about questionable requests for FMLA leave. Usually, it’s the employee whose family lives out of the country and the employee requests several weeks off at Christmas to visit that family. When that request is denied because there is no coverage, there is suddenly a note that a family member living in a foreign country conveniently needs care for the exact same period. Although employers generally feel they are getting conned by the employees in this situation, there is not a lot that can be done short of a second opinion (good luck in a foreign country) if the proper FMLA certifications are completed.
This new decision may mean more of these holiday and vacation plans will be made to accompany a spouse, parent, or child on a trip. It may seem unbelievable to an employer that a seriously ill person could be on say, the Orient Express, for three weeks, but the courts might be willing to buy it. Employers should evaluate these requests carefully to avoid an FMLA interference claim.