Justices rule against states in suit over family leave act

High court upholds right of state workers to sue if they are denied benefits

May 28, 2003|By Jan C. Greenburg | Jan C. Greenburg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Forcefully rejecting stereotypes about the roles of men and women as caregivers, the Supreme Court refused yesterday to exempt states from a federal law that authorizes employees to sue for back pay if they are denied a leave of absence to care for a sick family member.

In an opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court turned away arguments by Nevada officials that states were immune from lawsuits by employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The court said that the law was passed to address historic gender bias in granting leave for family emergencies and that Congress' strong interest in addressing sex discrimination trumps any states' rights concerns.

The high court's 6-3 decision was a striking departure from a recent line of cases that had limited Congress' power over the states.

Led by Rehnquist, the court in the past decade has narrowly ruled, in a series of 5-4 decisions, that workers could not sue states for violating a number of federal laws, including those aimed at preventing age and disability discrimination.

But in a broadly worded opinion, Rehnquist said yesterday that Congress and the courts could use stronger standards to fight sex discrimination. In a matter-of-fact tone, he detailed the long history of discriminatory leave policies and the rationale for the family leave law, which guarantees employees up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for family members.

Before the law, he wrote, leave policies were grounded in "stereotypes about women's domestic roles" and "parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men." Those "mutually reinforcing stereotypes," Rehnquist noted, created a "self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination" that forced women to maintain the role of primary family caregiver.

When Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, it had evidence that states relied on those invalid gender stereotypes in granting administrative leave, Rehnquist wrote. For example, seven states had child care leave provisions that applied only to women. Twelve states provided employees with no family leave, beyond childbirth or adoption, to care for a sick child or family member, he noted.

"By creating an across-the-board, routine employment benefit for all eligible employees, Congress sought to ensure that family-care leave would no longer be stigmatized as an inordinate drain on the workplace caused by female employees, and that employers could not evade leave obligations simply by hiring men," Rehnquist wrote.

Since Congress passed the law, about 35 million workers have taken time off work to care for family members. More than 40 percent have been men.

Lawyers who defended the law hailed the ruling as an important turning point in the court's recent states' rights cases, as well as a key affirmation of its commitment to eradicating sex discrimination.

The decision also confirms Congress' power to enact civil rights legislation to combat race discrimination, as well as other employment discrimination laws, such as the Equal Pay Act, said Georgetown University Law School professor Nina Pillard, who represented the state employee who was suing Nevada.

Civil rights groups had feared those laws also were in jeopardy because of the court's previous states' rights cases.

"Symbolically, it's really important as stopping that riptide that was washing away Congress' power to enforce constitutional rights," Pillard said. "The court is saying this is an important sex discrimination issue and that Congress can be partner with the court in responding to it, which is just great news ... for men and women nationwide."

Judith Lichtman, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, which was Pillard's co-counsel on the case, said the decision was a "tremendous victory for working families and a welcome affirmation that Congress has the power to outlaw gender bias."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has previously sided with the states in challenges to federal power, joined Rehnquist's opinion. Justice David H. Souter, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, also joined the opinion, but issued a separate concurrence that criticized the court's previous decisions limiting federal power. Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with the outcome, but also wrote a separate opinion.

In dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the court had failed to demonstrate that the states had engaged in a pattern of unlawful conduct, which would warrant subjecting them to lawsuits for back pay. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined his dissent.

The decision keeps alive a lawsuit by William Hibbs, a social worker who sued under the family leave law after he lost his job with Nevada's Department of Human Resources for failing to come to work. Hibbs had taken time off to care for his wife after a serious car accident and argued his leave was covered under the federal law.

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