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Is Distant Travel For Faith Healing Of Seriously Ill Spouse Covered Under FMLA?

By on November 5, 2012 in FMLA with 0 Comments

Maria Lucia Tayag, Plaintiff, worked for Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc. in Massachusettsas as a Health Information Clerk.  She received favorable reviews since she began her employment in 2002.  Her husband, Rhomeo Tayag, suffered from several chronic medical conditions, including recurrent gout, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis and end-stage renal failure.

Plaintiff routinely used intermittent FMLA leave for one or two days to take Mr. Tayag to medical appointments or help him with household activities.  In June 2006, Plaintiff asked her supervisor to approve seven weeks of vacation time from August 7, 2006 to September 22, 2006.  The supervisor denied the request for seven weeks of vacation time.  Plaintiff then advised that she needed the time off because her husband was scheduled to have hip and eye surgery.  The supervisor then directed Plaintiff to Lahey’s FMLA administrator, Susan Olsen.

On July 8, 2006, Plaintiff advised Olsen that she needed to take seven weeks off to care for her husband, who was recovering from cardiac angioplasty.  The leave would begin August 7, 2006 and end on September 25, 2006. Olsen told Plaintiff she needed to obtain a medical certification from her husband’s cardiologist to support the leave request.  Plaintiff simply provided a copy of the angioplasty records instead of a medical certification. Olsen responded that this was insufficient.

On August 2, 2006, Plaintiff provided a note from Mr. Tayag’s primary care physician, an internist, stating that Mr. Tayag’s medical problems “significantly affect his functional capacity to do activities of daily living and that his wife should be given leave” for medical reasons to “accompany Mr. Tayag on any trips as ne needs physical assistance on a regular basis.”  The letter referred to Mr. Tayag’s chronic liver and kidney problems.

Olsen advised Plaintiff to obtain a certification from the cardiologist who performed Mr. Tayag’s angioplasty.  She told Plaintiff that her forms were inadequate and her request would not be granted without the cardiologist’s certification.

On August 7, 2006, Plaintiff left a message stating that she was not coming to work.  The next day she told Olsen that she did not come to work on August 7th because her husband needed her care and she had completed all her paperwork requirements. Later that day the Tayags left for thePhilippines where they remained until September 22, 2006.

At no time did the Plaintiff ever inform Lahey that she was going to the Philippines to participate in faith healing activities.  The hospital did not know that she was going to the Philippines at all.

While the Tayags were in thePhilippines, the cardiologist submitted a medical certification stating that Plaintiff did not need to take FMLA leave to care for her husband.  Lahey then sent Plaintiff a letter terminating her employment.  Plaintiff thereafter sued alleging that her FMLA rights had been violated.

The record indicated that the Tayags had spent three and a half weeks attending a “Pilgrimage of Healing Ministry” at St. Bartholomew Parish in the Philippines.  Plaintiff asserted that her Catholic priest was renowned for his “miraculous healing.” Mr. Tayag did not see any physician during his seven weeks in the Philippines.  Of the 47 days in thePhilippines, Plaintiff and her husband spent 19 days away from St. Bartholomew Parish with family and friends.  Plaintiff carried her husband’s bags, pushed his wheelchair and provided him with his medication while in the Philippines.

The Court first observed that there must be care provided for the FMLA to be triggered. Providing psychological care is recognized under the FMLA together with providing physical care.  Plaintiff argued that she provided care by assisting with basic needs, pushing Mr. Tayag’s wheelchair, and administering medications.  Her husband could not have traveled without her, according to Plaintiff.

Lahey argued that there is no support for “miraculous healing” as covered under the FMLA.  Plaintiff responded that in 2009 certain Christian Science practitioners were designated as health care providers under the FMLA.  Nonetheless, the Court said, “It is far from clear that caring for a seriously ill spouse on a trip for non-medical religious purposes is a protected activity under the FMLA.”  The Court side-stepped the issue of faith healing and focused instead on the number of days that Plaintiff spent with her husband with family and friends.

Even if caring for a sick spouse on a trip for faith-healing were protected because of its potential psychological benefits, it is undisputed that nearly half of the Tayag’s 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.

For this reason the Court rejected Plaintiff’s suit.  It did not squarely hold that faith healing could never be considered protected under the FMLA.

Plaintiff also attempted to claim that Lahey violated her ADA rights by rejecting the certification provided by the family doctor and insisting on the cardiologist’s certification and by terminating her employment.   The Court said that under the circumstances of this case, Lahey had a right to seek more medical information.  Plaintiff gave different versions of why she wanted the time off.  First, she said it was a vacation.  Then she said it was because her husband was recovering from surgery for his eye and hip and then angioplasty.  Plaintiff’s ADA argument depended on her leave being covered under the FMLA.  Since the Court held that her trip was in the nature of a vacation, it was not FMLA protected.  Hence, the termination of plaintiff was appropriate for taking unapproved absences.

This case is certainly one of the first that deals with faith healing and the FMLA.  The case can be found at Tayag v. Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc., 677 F. Supp. 2d 446 (D. Mass. 2012).

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About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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