‘Faith Healing’ Trip Not an FMLA-Authorized Event

February 10, 2010 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A former clerk for a Burlington, Massachusetts, hospital was not entitled to take medical leave for a seven-week Philippines trip during which she and her seriously ill husband attended a faith-healing event, a judge has ruled.

In throwing out the suit filed by plaintiff Maria Lucia Tayag, U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled that Tayag’s  former employer, Lahey Clinic Hospital, was within its rights to fire her in August 2006 for taking an unauthorized leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Saris ruled that the visit by the Tayags to a “Pilgrimage of Healing Ministry” at St. Bartholomew Parish, a Roman Catholic church in Catbalogan, Samar Province, did not qualify as seeking legitimate medical care under the FMLA.  Husband Rhomeo Tayag believed in faith healing since the priest was “renowned for his miraculous healing abilities.” The plaintiff claimed the pilgrimage treated the psychological aspect of her husband’s serious medical condition.

Finally, Saris contended, Maria Lucia Tayag had not shown that she had “to care for” her husband as defined under the FMLA. The court said the husband was unable to travel alone and that the plaintiff carried his bags, pushed his wheelchair, provided psychological support, and gave him medication.

According to the ruling, Maria Lucia Tayag had filled out the hospital’s required FMLA paperwork and sought a doctor’s authorization. Though the hospital determined that she wasn’t entitled to the leave, the couple left for the Philippines anyway. When she did not respond to letters and phone calls from the hospital, she was discharged for taking unauthorized leave, the opinion said.

The court pointed out that the couple had spent much of the time on non-medical activities; 19 of their 47 days in the Philippines were spent visiting family and friends.

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,” Saris wrote. “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 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.”

The ruling is available here.