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Supreme Court Rules State Workers Cannot Sue Over Denied Sick Leave

Supreme Court Rules State Workers Cannot Sue Over Denied Sick Leave

March 21, 2012 — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday in a 5-4 decision said that state employees who are denied sick leave cannot sue states for monetary damages under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, the Washington Post reports (Barnes, Washington Post, 3/20).

The case was filed by Daniel Coleman against the Maryland Court of Appeals, which fired him in 2007 after denying his request for a 10-day medical leave to address his hypertension and diabetes (Holland, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 3/20).

Under FMLA, employees are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for the birth, care or adoption of a child; the care of a family member with a serious health condition; or their own serious health problem that inhibits their ability to work (Washington Post, 3/20).

In a 2003 case against Nevada, the high court ruled that state employees can sue under the FMLA provision related to care for ill family members. In that case and in the Maryland case, the states argued that FMLA does not apply to them because states generally are immune from lawsuits that seek monetary awards. Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the 2003 decision that Congress had the authority to override states' immunity to "protect the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace" by eliminating "the pervasive sex-role stereotype that caring for family members is women's work" (Liptak, New York Times, 3/20).

Tuesday's Decision

The 2003 case did not address the self-care provision at issue in situations like Coleman's or when an employee is unable to work because of pregnancy. Writing for the majority in Tuesday's decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that Coleman's case differed from the 2003 case involving the family-care provision because there is no "widespread evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave." He added that in passing FMLA, Congress did not identify a "pattern of constitutional violations" that would justify lawsuits against states for damages (Chen/Totenberg, NPR, 3/20).

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Writing for the minority, Ginsburg said the entire FMLA "is directed at sex discrimination," adding that it was "originally envisioned as a way to guarantee -- without singling out women or pregnancy -- that pregnant women would not lose their jobs when they gave birth. The self-care provision achieves that aim." She wrote, "It would make scant sense to provide job-protected leave for a woman to care for a newborn, but not for her recovery from delivery, a miscarriage, or the birth of a stillborn baby."

Ginsburg added that the majority opinion would make it more difficult for women "to live balanced lives, at home and in gainful employment." She wrote that "at least the damage is contained," noting that lawsuits under the self-care provision are still allowed against private employers and other actions are available against state employers (New York Times, 3/20).

National Partnership for Women & Families President Debra Ness called the court's decision "appalling and dangerous." It "effectively puts state workers and their families at risk when workers become pregnant or illness strikes," she said (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 3/20).