U.S. SC: States cannot be sued over sick leave

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Mar 21, 2012


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a Maryland state employee who was fired after asking for unpaid sick leave, as required by the Family and Medical Leave Act, cannot sue the state for damages.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 entitles an employee to take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave per year for the following:

- The care of a newborn son or daughter;

- The adoption or foster care placement of a child;

- The care of a spouse, son, daughter or parent with a serious medical condition; and

- The employee's own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee's ability to perform at work.

The first three are considered family-care provisions, while the fourth is the self-care provision.

The FMLA also creates a private right of action for equitable relief and damages "against any employer (including a public agency) in any federal or state court."

The petitioner, Daniel Coleman, filed a lawsuit alleging that his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, violated the FMLA by denying him self-care leave and then wrongfully firing him.

Coleman had asked for 10 days of medical leave in 2007 to deal with diabetes and hypertension.

A federal district court dismissed the suit on sovereign immunity grounds.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, concluding that suits against states under the self-care provision are barred by sovereign immunity.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the 12-page majority opinion, pointed to Congress.

"In enacting the FMLA, Congress relied upon evidence of a well-documented pattern of sex-based discrimination in family-leave policies. States had facially discriminatory leave policies that granted longer periods of leave to women than to men. States also administered facially neutral family-leave policies in gender biased ways," he explained.

"These practices reflected what Congress found to be a 'pervasive sex-role stereotype that caring for family members is women's work,' a stereotype to which even this Court had succumbed in earlier times.

"Faced with 'the States' record of unconstitutional participation in, and fostering of, gender based discrimination in the administration of leave benefits,' Hibbs concluded that requiring state employers to give all employees the opportunity to take family-care leave was 'narrowly targeted at the faultline between work and family -- precisely where sex-based overgeneralization has been and remains strongest.'"

But the same cannot be said for requiring states to give all employees the opportunity to take self-care leave, Kennedy said.

"It is true the self-care provision offers some women a benefit by allowing them to take leave for pregnancy related illnesses; but as a remedy, the provision is not congruent and proportional to any identified constitutional violations," he wrote.

"It follows that abrogating the States' immunity from suits for damages for failure to give self-care leave is not a congruent and proportional remedy if the existing state leave policies would have sufficed."

Kennedy said even if women take family-care leave more often than men, men do not take self-care leave more often than women; and there is "little evidence" that employers assume they do.

The justice called Coleman's "overly complicated" argument about how the self-care provision works in tandem with the family-care provisions "unconvincing."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined.

"The plurality pays scant attention to the overarching aim of the FMLA: to make it feasible for women to work while sustaining family life. Over the course of eight years, Congress considered the problem of workplace discrimination against women, and devised the FMLA to reduce sex-based inequalities in leave programs," Ginsburg wrote.

"Essential to its design, Congress assiduously avoided a legislative package that, overall, was or would be seen as geared to women only. Congress thereby reduced employers' incentives to prefer men over women, advanced women's economic opportunities, and laid the foundation for a more egalitarian relationship at home and at work."

She continued, "The self-care provision is a key part of that endeavor, and, in my view, a valid exercise of congressional power under ยง5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. I would therefore reverse the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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