High Court To Hear FMLA Case

January 13, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a case over family leave policies for state workers, seeking to resolve the legal question of whether state workers can sue for money damages when states turn down their leave requests.

Set for arguments on January 15, the case before the Supreme Court will seek to define to what extent whether the nation’s 5 million state workers are fully covered by legislation intended to protect workers in family emergencies.  That presents the court with another test of its recent trend of protecting state sovereignty in the face of federal rules, according to a USA Today report.

A five-justice majority has repeatedly said state employees cannot sue for damages when their employers deny them benefits under certain federal laws, including those protecting workers against discrimination based on disability or on age, as is the circumstance in the cases pending Supreme Court review.  

But the present case is different, and the stakes are higher, because it arguably involves a kind of bias, based on sex, covered by the 14th Amendment, allowing Congress more latitude in delving into state business.

Just The Facts

William Hibbs, a Nevada social worker, and his wife suffered a serious neck injury in a car accident seven years ago. She faced multiple surgeries, followed by a regmine of pain medications that led to a state of severe depression requiring constant care. During the tribulation that his wife faced, Hibbs asked his bosses for time off based on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993.

State officials agreed, saying Hibbs could use the leave intermittently as needed over an eight-month period. However, prior to the end of the eight week period, the state informed him that he would need to return to work.   Hibbs, believing his leave had not run out, refused, and thus was fired.   Following his dismissal Hibbs sued the state for compensation and his job back.

Nevada’s Gamble

Nevada said there decision is not a protest of letting workers attend to medical emergencies, but rather the way in which Congress holds the states accountable. They are appealing a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that said Congress properly lifted the states’ usual sovereign immunity from damages claims.

Deputy Nevada Attorney General Paul Taggart, told the Supreme Court in his brief that the FMLA provision essentially relates to administration of employee benefits and should not be considered an anti-discrimination mandate giving Congress more leeway.   Additionally, Nevada has rejected assertions that Congress was concerned about historic bias in the states.

The 19 other states that have entered the case are divided.

Opposing Nevada are states that say allowing state employees to sue for damages ”is consistent with the obligation of attorneys general (to eliminate) workplace gender discrimination.”  That list includes the states of New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington.

On the other hand, thirteen have sided with Nevada, arguing they need to ”protect their citizens” from damage awards that would drain state resources and noting that they have already adopted “family friendly” leave programs.   Those states are:   Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.