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Monday, July 11, 2011

Employee must be in close physical proximity to ill family member to satisfy FMLA "To Care For" requirement


Employee must be in close physical proximity to ill family member to satisfy FMLA "To Care For" requirement
Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved by Carl C. Bosland, Esq. Reproduced with permission. Mr. Bosland is the author of A Federal Sector Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act & Related Litigation.

Girard Baham requested and was granted FMLA leave to care for his daughter, who fell and suffered a serious head injury while the family was on vacation. The daughter was airlifted from Honduras to Miami, where the family remained in the hospital while their daughter recovered.

Baham was on provisionally approved FMLA leave from March 20 through May 5, 2008.  From April 12 through April 29, however, Baham returned to their home in Texas in response to neighborhood association letters complaining of an untended yard.  He also cleaned up the house, and added padding to sharp edges in the home to protect his daughter upon her return.  Baham's wife remained in Florida while caring for their daughter.  Baham talked with his wife by telephone every day.  Baham did not, however, inform his employer of his returned to Texas.

On his return, Baham was informed that his FMLA paperwork was incomplete, and he was asked to provide the missing information.  Baham let work later that day, leaving his keys and ID card with the security guard. The employer interpreted this act as a resignation, and sent a letter confirming his termination a few days later.  Baham sued, alleging that his termination violated the FMLA.  The federal trial court dismissed the suit, finding that Baham failed to establish that he "cared" for his daughter within the meaning of the FMLA while he was in Texas.  Baham appealed the case to the Fifth Circuit.

To be entitled to FMLA leave, an employee must show that he is needed "to care for" a family member with a serious health condition.  29 USC 2612(a)(1)(C).  In addition to providing physical care, the employee is entitled to leave in order to provide psychological comfort and reassurance which would be beneficial to his or her child or to make arrangements for changes in care such as transfer to a nursing home.  29 CFR 825.116(a).

Baham argued that he was entitled to FMLA leave while he was in Texas away from his daughter based on frequent telephone contact wit his wife, who was caring for their daughter.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed.  Following the lead of the Ninth Circuit in Telllis v. Alaska Airlines, Inc., 414 F.3d 1045, 1047 (9th Cir. 2005), the Fifth Circuit found that the "to care for" requirement required the employee to provide "some actual care" while in "close and continuing proximity to the ill family member."  While Baham was in Texas he was not in close continuing proximity to his daughter.

The Court also opined that cutting the lawn, cleaning the house, and preparing the house by padding furniture, did not qualify as "care" under the FMLA.  The Court noted that it found no authority holding that merely remaining in frequent telephone contact with a relative while in another state for weeks constitutes providing care for purposes of the FMLA.

 The Fifth Circuit afformed the judgment of the district court dismissing Bagahms FMLA claim.
Comment:  The Fifth Circuit joined the Ninth Circuit in imposing a requirement that "caring for" an ill family member requires the provision of some actual care in close and continuing proximity to the ill family member.  With respect to the "actual care" requirement, the decision is not surprising in that Baham's telephone contacts were with his wife, not his daughter or his daughter's physicians.  The situation would doubtless have been different had he been consulting with his wife and doctors about treatment options for his daughter. That activity would likely be viewed as providing "some actual care."  Cutting the lawn, and cleaning and preparing the house for the daughter's return home was apparently too attenuated from "physical or psychological care" to fall within the protections of the FMLA, at least for the Fifth Circuit.

Interestingly, neither the Statute nor the DOL FMLA regulations specifically impose a "close and continuing proximity" requirement for an employee to "care for" an ill family member.  Query whether in a world of real-time internet video/audio access to the daughter's hospital room whether an employee could not provide psychological care remotely.  With the right facts, I believe the court-manufactured "close and continuing proximity" care requirement will fall as a relic of a past age in light of the new technological reality.          
 Baham v. McLane Foodservice, Inc., No. 10-10944 (5th Cir. July 1, 2011)  http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/10/10-10944.0.wpd.pdf

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