Employment-Seventh Circuit Rules That An Employee Is Entitled to FMLA Leave To Care For A Parent, Even When The Parent Traveled To Las Vegas

In Ballard v. Chicago Park District, No. 13‐1445 (7th Cir. 2014), the Court faced the question of what the term “caring for” a family member means for purposes of the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”). The FMLA gives eligible employees a right to twelve workweeks of leave for, among other things, to care for the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent, of the employee, if such spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health condition.

In this case, a question arose as to whether FMLA leave is available to allow an employee to provide physical and psychological care to a terminally ill parent while that parent is traveling away from home. Here, the plaintiff, Beverly Ballard (“Ballard”), is a former Chicago Park District employee. In April 2006, Ballard’s mother, Sarah, was diagnosed with end‐stage congestive heart failure. Ballard lived with Sarah and acted as her primary caregiver. In 2007, Sarah and a social worker met to discuss Sarah’s end‐of‐life goals. Sarah said that she had always wanted to take a family trip to Las Vegas, and the trip and funding therefore were arranged.

Ballard requested unpaid leave under the FMLA from the defendant, the Chicago Park District, so that she could accompany her mother to Las Vegas. The Park District ultimately denied the request, although Ballard and her mother went anyway. Ballard continued to serve as her mother’s caretaker during the trip. Several months later, the Chicago Park District terminated Ballard for unauthorized absences. Ballard then filed suit under the FMLA. The issue for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) was whether Ballard was entitled to FMLA leave, in order to care for her mother, even though the care was rendered during a trip to Las Vegas.

In analyzing the case, the Court said that the words “to care” for, as used in the FMLA regulations, include “physical and psychological care” without any geographic limitation. It agreed with the district court, which had stated that where the care takes place has no bearing on FMLA protections. The Court therefore ruled that entitlement to FMLA leave was not lost because of the Las Vegas trip.