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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Shields States from Damage Suits for Violating Federal Sick Leave Law

Posted Mar 20, 2012 12:40 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the unusual step of reading aloud from her dissent today when the U.S. Supreme Court shielded states from damage claims for violating a sick leave provision of the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the main opinion (PDF). “As a consequence of our constitutional design, money damages are the exception when sovereigns are defendants,” he wrote. Bloomberg News, Reuters and the Associated Press have stories.

At issue is a provision of the law that allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from a serious illness or medical condition. Kennedy said the states were shielded by sovereign immunity.

Joining Kennedy's opinion were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in the judgment in a separate opinion.

The decision is a loss for Daniel Coleman, a Maryland court employee who lost his job after requesting sick leave.

According to Bloomberg, “The decision marks a shift for the court, giving new life to a line of rulings in the 1990s that bolstered states’ legal immunity and split the nine justices. That movement came to a halt in 2003, when the court said state workers could seek damages for violations of other provisions in the federal family-leave law.”

The 2003 case involved a different provision requiring employers to grant unpaid leave for workers to care for a new child or a family member with a serious medical condition. Kennedy said the court was addressing gender bias in the 2003 case, but there was no identified pattern of discrimination in the present case.

For states to be sued under the FMLA, Kennedy said, “Congress must identify a pattern of constitutional violations and tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations.” Congress didn't do that when it enacted the provision allowing leave for self-care, he said.

Ginsburg argued the self-care provision also enforces a right to be free of gender discrimination. "The court’s judgment dilutes the force of the act, and that is regrettable,” she said. “But at least the damage is contained. The self-care provision remains valid commerce clause legislation and therefore applies, undiluted, in the private sector."

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