Supreme Court says states can’t be sued for violating sick-leave law

By Eric W. Dolan
Tuesday, March 20, 2012 18:30 EDT
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[Sick woman taking her temperature via Shutterstock]
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Women’s groups warned that the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday had severely undermined the Family and Medical Leave Act for state workers.

“By the narrowest of margins, the Court ruled that millions of state workers all across this country will have no meaningful recourse if their employers deny them medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA),” Debra L. Ness, the president of the group, said. “This effectively puts state workers and their families at risk when workers become pregnant or illness strikes. It is an appalling and dangerous ruling that simply cannot stand.”

In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Daniel Coleman could not sue the Maryland Court of Appeals, his employer, under the FMLA because the court was immune from damage suits as an entity of a sovereign state.

“States may not be subject to suits for damages based on violations of a comprehensive statute unless Congress has identified a specific pattern of constitutional violations by state employers,” Justice Kennedy explained for the majority opinion in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals.

When Coleman asked for medical leave to deal with hypertension and diabetes in 2007, he was told he would be terminated if he did not resign. After being fired, he sued the court for violating the FMLA by failing to provide him with self-care leave.

In 2003, the Supreme Court held that the Eleventh Amendment did not prohibit suits against state employers that violated the family-care provisions of the FMLA. But the Kennedy said the same did not apply in this case, because the self-care provisions — unlike the family-care provisions — were not meant to remedy sexual discrimination.

“Congress must identify a pattern of constitutional violations and tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations,” Kennedy said. “It failed to do so when it allowed employees to sue states for violations of the FMLA’s self-care provision.”

In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg argued that the self-care provision was, in fact, meant to address sex discrimination.

“Self-care leave, I would hold, is a key part of Congress’ endeavor to make it feasible for women to work and have families,” Ginsburg wrote. “By reducing an employer’s perceived incentive to avoid hiring women, [the provision] lessens the risk that the FMLA as a whole would give rise to the very sex discrimination it was enacted to thwart. The plurality offers no legitimate ground to dilute the force of the act.”

Marcia D. Greenberger, co-President of the National Women’s Law Center, condemned the ruling as well.

“By providing a right for both men and women to take leave for serious medical conditions or to care for family members, the FMLA further ensured that employers would not have an incentive to avoid hiring women,” she explained.

“Under the FMLA, Congress exercised its constitutional authority to remedy a pattern of sex discrimination by applying the same standard to state employers that it applied to private employers. Unfortunately, today’s decision will make it much harder for state employees who develop pregnancy complications and other serious medical conditions to enforce their rights to take the leave to which they are legally entitled.”

[Sick woman taking her temperature via Shutterstock]

Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan has served as an editor for Raw Story since August 2010, and is based out of Sacramento, California. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and received a Bachelor of Science from Bradley University. Eric is also the publisher and editor of PsyPost. You can follow him on Twitter @ewdolan.
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