Family Medial Leave Case Summary
When an employee needs to request time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for their cancer treatment or that of a parent, the validity of the request might probably seem apparent.
However, what if the FMLA request applied to a trip that wasn’t being taken for medical treatment purposes? This was the case with Beverly Ballard v. Chicago Park District.
Beverly Ballard was hired by the Chicago Park District in 1983 as a lifeguard and over the years she moved on to various other positions, all the while building up leave time for personal days and sick time, but not vacation days.
In early 2006, Ballard’s mother, Sarah, was identified as having terminal congestive heart failure. Ballard’s mother lived with her and after her diagnosis Sarah Ballard started getting hospice services from Horizon Hospice & Palliative Care at Ballard’s home.
At first, a home-care nurse would go to the Ballard house five days a week and was available if Sarah Ballard required help. As time continued, however, the hospice staff made fewer home visits as Ballard became more adept in reading her mother’s blood sugar level, tracking her heart health and spotting the signs of a significant stroke or heart attack.
Although Ballard’s young daughter had also been trained to tend to her grandmother, Ballard was her mother’s principal caregiver. Her duties included preparing healthy meals, giving her mother medicine, running a pump to eliminate fluids from her mother’s heart, bathing her, administering oxygen when needed and ensuring her mother was comfortable by saying calming things to her, massaging her and propping her up in bed.
On December 19, 2007, Ballard found that she and her mother were being given a trip to Las Vegas through the Fairy godmother Foundation, a charity organization that grants “wishes” to people with terminal conditions. The trip was slated to happen the next month, from January 21 through January 26. The same day she found out about the trip Ballard alleged that she approached Park District supervisor Eric Fischer to ask for leave for the trip to Las Vegas, more than a full month before the trip was to take place.
Fischer was Ballard’s direct supervisor at the time, but he did not have the power to grant FMLA leave requests. Ballard said she handed Fischer the Fairy godmother Foundation letter informing her of the grant and marked down the dates of the Las Vegas trip on the back of the letter. Ballard alleged that she talked about FMLA leave with Fischer, but that he informed her it was too early to handle scheduling issues for late January. Both Fischer and the Park District refute that this conversation ever took place.
Ballard stated that she did not hear back from Fischer after the alleged conversation, so she attempted to get in touch with him over the phone on January 14. However, she was only able to reach his secretary, who said he was not available. The next day, Ballard talked with the secretary again, who said she should fax in a leave request form, which Ballard did. The Chicago Park District said that it obtained a faxed leave form from Ballard on January 15 and that the form revealed that it was for FMLA leave. However, Park District said that the quality of the fax was so bad that Fischer originally thought it was for personal days and, therefore, rejected the request.
After getting the denial, Ballard tried to call Fischer a number of times over the phone but was unable to reach him. His secretary assured Ballard that she was sending her messages along to Fischer and assured her that if she got her paperwork all set, she would be fine. The Park District denies that Ballard made any calls to Fischer before her trip. Although Ballard had not obtained formal recognition of FMLA leave, she believed that it would eventually be approved according to her conversations with the secretary.
Ballard cared for her mother throughout the Las Vegas trip and also spent time with her playing slots, shopping and dining out. She later admitted that there were no plans for her mother to get medical care or therapy of any kind in Las Vegas.
Ballard returned to work one day late on January 28, 2008. She was delayed by a fire that had broken out in her hotel. On March 21, 2008, Ballard was fired for unauthorized absences associated with that trip.
Ballard then brought legal action against the Park District, claiming that her FMLA rights were interfered with.
The District Court Case
When Ballard brought her case, the court established that two things needed to be determined. First, it needed to establish the legal matter of whether or not Ballard “cared for” her mother under the guideline of the FMLA. Second, it needed to establish if Ballard was being truthful about providing sufficient notice.
The district court pointed out that the Department of Labor FMLA regulations says that “care for” includes both physical and psychological care. The court added that Sarah Ballard truly suffered from a “serious health condition,” and could not care for her own basic medical, hygienic or nutritional needs.
The court concluded that Ballard did indeed “care for” her mother during their trip to Las Vegas, as Sarah Ballard’s needs did not change, and the FMLA does not mandate that a patient be restricted to a specific location.
The court also found it reasonable that Ballard provided adequate notice of her potential need for FMLA leave.
While it’s difficult to know exactly what happened, there appears to have been a significant communication breakdown between Fischer and Ballard. This breakdown likely exacerbated or even created the situation and subsequent dispute. Employers need to inform management that they must keep lines of communication open with any employee requesting what could be FMLA leave.
Also, Park District could be truly ignorant of the possibility that the FMLA would apply to a hospice-sponsored trip to Las Vegas. The department could have looked into this situation by consulting with an attorney or other authority on the matter.