Does Supreme Court Decision on Sick Leave Hint at Health-Care Law Ruling?

By Warren Richey, Staff writer / March 20, 2012 

The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Congress overstepped its authority in passing a federal law that authorized state employees to sue their state employer for sick leave.

In a decision that sharply divided the court, a four-justice plurality said Tuesday that federal lawmakers had failed to identify enough evidence of discrimination to justify a key part of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The case is Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland (10-1016).

In all, five justices agreed with the outcome, siding with the State of Maryland and against an employee who sought to sue the state for damages over Maryland’s refusal to grant unpaid sick time under the federal law.

The decision comes a week before the high court is set to hear oral arguments over whether Congress overstepped its authority when it passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

While the health-care law and family leave act are authorized under different sections of the Constitution, many legal analysts are questioning whether the court’s conservative wing has the stomach to invalidate an act of Congress widely viewed as President Obama’s most significant domestic policy achievement.

The FMLA decision was authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is considered by many analysts as the conservative justice most likely to join the court’s liberal wing in upholding the Affordable Care Act.

On Tuesday, Justice Kennedy sided with the conservatives.

It was a development that did not go unnoted.

“On the cusp of the historic argument on the powers of the federal government in health care, and with challenges to the Voting Rights Act hurtling towards the court, the Coleman majority’s failure to give due deference to Congress’ express constitutional powers is troubling,” Doug Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, said in a statement.

The decision leaves FMLA in place, but undercuts an employee’s ability to sue his or her employer for damages when the employer is a state government.

The key question in the case was whether Congress had identified a significant pattern of discrimination that it was seeking to rectify via FMLA’s self-care provision.

Maryland officials argued that Congress failed to follow the proper constitutional procedures when it enacted the federal leave law.

Five members of the court agreed with Maryland that Congress exceeded its authority in passing the self-care provision.

Standing alone, the self-care provision is not a valid abrogation of the States’ immunity from suit,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the court. “When the FMLA was enacted, 95 percent of fulltime state and local government employees were covered by paid sick leave plans and 96 percent of such employees likewise enjoyed short-term disability protection.”

Kennedy said Congress found that men and women had used medical leave on an equal basis.

“Subjecting states to suits for damages pursuant to [Section 5 of the 14th Amendment] requires more than a theory for why abrogating the States’ immunity aids in, or advances, a stated congressional purpose,” Kennedy wrote.

“Congress must identify a pattern of constitutional violations and tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations,” he said.

“The court’s judgment dilutes the force of the act,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a dissent. She said that in her view the entire FMLA was a proper exercise of congressional power.

“The act was designed to promote women’s opportunities to live balanced lives, at home and in gainful employment,” she said, in a statement from the bench. “A particular problem Congress faced was the disadvantageous treatment of women when pregnancy or childbirth requires them to take time away from work.”

Justice Ginsburg was joined in dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

FMLA was written to provide leave opportunities for both men and women, in an effort to break down stereotypes that it was solely a woman’s job to care for sick members of the family. The self-care provision was part of a series of reforms intended to encourage men to take sick leave as often as women.

The high court upheld a different provision of FMLA in 2003. In that case, the court found that Congress had identified evidence that state governments enacted family leave policies that differentiated between male and female employees and administered neutral policies in ways that were discriminatory.

The self-care provision of the law did not include such evidence of discrimination, Kennedy said. “Under this court’s precedents, more is required to subject unconsenting states to suits for damages,” he wrote.

“Documented discrimination against women in the general workplace is a persistent, unfortunate reality, and, we must assume, a still prevalent wrong,” Kennedy wrote. “But 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.”