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Case Highlight: Non-Conventional Treatment Under the FMLA

Posted by attorney Beth Cole

In Tayag v. Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that an employee's seven-week leave of absence to accompany her husband on a "spiritual healing trip" did not constitute medical care within the meaning of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Facts

After taking several short leaves under the FMLA to care for her ill husband, Maria Tayag requested a seven-week leave to assist her husband while he traveled to the Philippines on a "spiritual healing trip." Tayag's employer, Lahey Clinic Hospital, requested that she provide documentation from her husband's physician certifying the need for Tayag to accompany him on the trip. Instead, Tayag produced a note from her own doctor stating that Tayag should receive time off to accompany her husband to the Philippines.

Tayag did not receive a determination from Lahey before leaving for her trip. Shortly after Tayag had left for the Philippines, Lahey received a certification form from the husband's doctor stating that Tayag did not need to accompany her husband on the trip. Lahey attempted to contact Tayag to inform her that her leave was not approved, but Tayag did not respond. Lahey subsequently terminated Tayag's employment.

During the course of the trip, Tayag's husband did not receive any traditional medical treatment, but rather attended several church services at the Pilgrimage of Healing Ministry at St. Bartholomew's Parish and met with clergy. Tayag and her husband also spent time seeing family and friends.

The Ruling

Tayag filed suit against her employer, claiming that she had been terminated in violation of the FMLA. However, the court ultimately held that Tayag's trip did not include "medical care" as defined by the statute. In this case, there were two medical certifications considered and the Court noted at most Tayag might have been entitled to a third opinion and "a reasonable opportunity to cure any . . . deficiency" in the certification, but Tayag's departure and failure to provide contact information blocked such processes. The court pointedly noted that 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." The court also concluded that the faith-healing exception of the FMLA for Christian Scientists who reject ordinary medical care and seek treatment through their faith did not apply to the facts of this case because the plaintiff and her husband were Catholics who accepted both traditional medicine and faith healing. Finally, the court held that Tayag's FMLA claim also failed because she had failed to comply with the certification procedures required by the hospital and thus had taken an unapproved leave.

Message for Employers

This case serves to remind employers that not all types of leave fall under the FMLA. In order to verify the applicability of the FMLA, employers may request that employees provide medical documentation justifying the request. This is particularly relevant for non-traditional medical treatments such as spiritual healing. This case also serves to remind employers that a trip with a seriously ill family member is not necessarily covered by the FMLA, even when the employee provides care for the family member.

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