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WASHINGTON—Public workers cannot sue their employers for damages if an employer refuses to grant leave for an employee's own serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.
In a 5-4 decision Tuesday in Daniel Coleman vs. Court of Appeals of Maryland, the nation's high court decided that states' sovereign immunity would apply in such cases, even though public employees are allowed to sue under the FMLA when workers are denied leave to care for their dependents.
An attorney, however, said the ruling is likely to have little practical impact.
According to the ruling, Mr. Coleman was employed by the Court of Appeals of Maryland when he requested sick leave, and was informed that he would be terminated if he did not resign. Mr. Coleman then sued the state court, alleging his employer violated the FMLA by failing to provide him with self-care leave.
The Supreme Court's majority ruling said that in a 2003 case, Nevada Department of Human Resources vs. William Hibbs, it held that Congress could subject the states to suits for violating the FMLA's family care provisions.
“That holding rested on evidence that states had family-leave policies that differentiated on the basis of sex and that states administered even neutral family-leave polices in ways that discriminated on the basis of sex,” the court said.
However, “Standing alone, the self-care provision is not a valid abrogation of the states' immunity from suit,” said the court. “Without widespread evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave, it is apparent that the congressional purpose in enacting the self-care provision is unrelated to these supposed wrongs,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
“The legislative history of the self-care provision reveals a concern for the economic burdens on the employee and the employee's family resulting from illness-related job loss and a concern for discrimination on the basis of illness, not sex,” said the ruling. “In the finding pertinent to the self-care provision, the statute makes no reference to any distinction on the basis of sex.”
Darrell R. VanDeusen, a shareholder with law firm Kollman & Saucier P.A. in Timonium, Md., who was not involved in the case, said the Supreme Court's ruling “has split the provisions of the FMLA.” Whereas the court ruled in Hibbs that states' sovereign immunity had been waived with regard to the FMLA's family-care provisions because of the historic discrimination toward caregivers, Congress did not properly waive sovereign immunity with respect to the FMLA's self-care provision. The court found there was nothing in the legislative history to support a position that the self-care provision “had been the result of concerns about discrimination towards women,” said Mr. VanDeusen. In that case, “Congress didn't do it right.”
Mr. VanDeusen said, however, that he expects the ruling to have little practical impact because “most states are already providers of the equivalent of FMLA leave.” Furthermore, the ruling was consistent with “what all of the lower courts have been saying,” he said.
However, Debra L. Hess, president of the Washington-based National Partnership for Women & Families, criticized the ruling. In a statement, she described it as a “deep and bitter disappointment. By the narrowest of margins, the court ruled that millions of state workers all across the country will have no meaningful recourse if their employers deny them medical leave” under the FMLA. “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.”