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Testing the limits of FMLA leave

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A federal judge in Massachusetts ruled last week that the Family and Medical Leave Act does not provide protection to an employee who took a seven-week trip to the Philippines to participate in a faith healing event with her husband. 

Maria Tayag worked as clerk at Lahey Hospital.  Her husband had a number of serious chronic medical conditions, including kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis.  Ms. Tayag routinely requested and was approved for intermittent FMLA leave to care for her husband for a day or two.  In 2006, however, she requested seven weeks of leave.  When Ms. Tayag failed to provide the requested documentation and left for the Philippines without approval, the hospital terminated her employment.  She later sued for FMLA discrimination and harassment.

In the Philippines, the Tayags spent three and a half weeks attending a “Pilgrimage of Healing Ministry” at St. Bartholomew Parish, a Roman Catholic church. Mr. Tayag stated that he is “a believer of the faith healing,” and the priest at St. Bartholomew was renowned for his “miraculous healing” abilities. At no point during the trip did Mr. Tayag receive medical treatment or visit a health care professional. Aside from attending St. Bartholomew, the Tayags visited friends, family, and other churches.

 Ms. Tayag argued that she was entitled to FMLA leave because she provided care for her husband during their trip to the Philippines by assisting him with his basic needs, providing psychological comfort, carrying his luggage, pushing his wheelchair, and administering his medications. The Court conceded that employees are entitled to FMLA leave if they are directly  involved in the process of providing psychological support for a spouse or parent.  Earlier cases suggest that such care might include driving a parent to counseling sessions and helping with basic needs, or that simply being present at the hospital during the treatment of a stepdaughter was providing psychological ‘care’.

 Ms. Tayag also argued that her ill husband could not have attended this pilgrimage without her, and that it  treated the psychological aspect of her husband’s serious medical condition.  The hospital, for its part, argued that the trip to the Philippines was not covered because Mr. Tayag sought “miraculous healing”, not medical care.  In support of its position, the hospital pointed out that Catholic priests are not identified as “health care providers” under the FMLA (although certain Christian Science practitioners are so designated).

 Ultimately, the Court did not directly decide whether providing psychological support and care for a seriously ill spouse on a trip for non-medical religious purposes is a protected activity under the FMLA, although it intimidated that there must be some medical purpose for FMLA coverage.  Instead, the Court focused on the fact that nearly half of the Tayags’ trip was spent visiting friends, family, and local churches. “The FMLA does not permit employees to take time off to take a vacation with a seriously ill spouse, even if caring for the spouse is an “incidental consequence” of taking him on vacation.”  

 While it is unlikely that one of your employees will request FMLA time for a faith-healing pilgrimage, this case does remind us that employees may be entitled to unpaid leave for a wide variety of activities necessary to care for and support an ill family member.

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