Civil and Human Rights

Supreme Court Voids Part of Medical Leave Act

By DAVID G. SAVAGE – Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON State workers who are denied unpaid sick leave required by federal law cannot sue the states, the Supreme Court said in a victory for states’ rights that some liberal advocates saw as a bad omen for President Barack Obama’s health care law.

The 5-4 decision is a setback for millions of employees of state agencies and state colleges, and it voided in part a provision in the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. Among other things the act said that employees have a right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from an illness or childbirth.

The rights of employees of private companies are unchanged by the ruling.

In this case, Daniel Coleman had requested a sick leave and was fired from his job with a Maryland Court of Appeals after his request was denied. He then sued for $1.1 million in damages, alleging his rights were violated under the federal Family Medical Leave Act.

The National Partnership for Women and Families condemned the decision as “appalling and dangerous.” It “effectively puts state workers and their families at risk when workers become pregnant or illness strikes,” said Debra Ness, the group’s president.

However, the court’s majority minimized the impact, noting that most state and local employees are given some paid sick leave.

The medical leave act also provides for unpaid leave to deal with a family medical emergency, but in Tuesday’s decision, the court’s conservative majority focused on the personal medical leave provision.

It said lawsuits by state employees permitted under the law would violate the constitutional rule that the “states, as sovereigns, are immune from suits for damages.” Use of this rule, which was devised by the Rehnquist Court in the mid-1990s, had receded in recent years. It has now reappeared in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy just days before the court hears the 26-state challenge to Obama’s health care law.

Next Wednesday, on the third day of oral arguments on different aspects of the health care law, lawyers for Florida and other 25 states will argue that the planned expansion of the Medicaid program for low-income persons violates state’s rights because it puts an undue burden on the states.

That was the argument that prevailed in the sick leave case decided Tuesday. Doug Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, noted the similarity and said the “majority’s failure to give due deference to Congress’ express constitutional powers is troubling.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered her dissent in the courtroom. She said Congress had decided “the best way to protect women against losing their jobs because of pregnancy or childbirth” was to give them a right to take unpaid sick leave for 12 weeks. The law gave equal rights to men, she said.

Ginsburg noted that the Labor Department could still sue state agencies that repeatedly violate its provisions. But the court’s ruling bars suits from individual employees if they are fired for having taken an extended personal medical leave. They can sue if they are fired for taking “family leave.”

The Constitution itself makes no mention of states having a “sovereign immunity” if they violate federal laws, but the Rehnquist Court said it was an implicit principle dating to the 18th century. Beginning in 1996, the court handed down a series of 5-4 decisions that shielded states from various federal laws. But in 2003, to the surprise of many, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote a 6-3 decision upholding the Family Medical Leave Act as it applies to family but not personal leave. He reasoned that Congress had acted to end sex discrimination against women workers who were most likely to lose the jobs because of a pregnancy leave. The three dissenters were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Kennedy.

The issue returned with the Coleman case.

Kennedy dismissed the suit and said Congress could not subject states to suits over personal sick leave because this had nothing to do with remedying a pattern of sex discrimination. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito agreed and were joined by Thomas and Scalia.

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