High Courts Upholds State Worker FMLA Rights

May 27, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - State worker rights to 12 weeks of family leave have been upheld by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The 6-3 majority determined that Congress was within its rights to mandate that states give their own workers the same benefits that the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants to private sector employees.   Further, state employees can sue in federal court to enforce their rights under the 1993 law, according to an Associated Press report.

The decision upholds an appellate court’s opinion.   Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority.   Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Rehnquist in the majority opinion referred to the original reason behind the passing of FMLA:   Congress acting in part to stop discrimination against both women and men. Women had suffered discrimination in hiring and promotions because of assumptions they would shoulder most of the care for children or sick family, and men had suffered discrimination because they were presumed not to need time off to perform the same care.

The court weighed that rationale against state governments’ usual immunity from individuals’ federal lawsuits. Congress can override that immunity in limited circumstances, and the state of Nevada argued that the case of William Hibbs was not one of them.

Legal Precedent

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 regimen of pain medications that led to a state of severe depression requiring constant care. Hibbs asked his bosses for time off based on the FMLA, and state officials agreed, saying Hibbs could use the leave intermittently as needed over an eight-month period.

Hibbs had requested 200 hours of catastrophic leave. His employer also granted him a special benefit under state law known as “catastrophic leave” — paid leave donated by other workers — but said it would count as part of the 12 weeks.  Hibbs argued his leave under the federal law should begin only after his catastrophic leave had ended.  

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 held its decision was not a protest of letting workers attend to medical emergencies, but rather the way in which Congress holds the states accountable. The case arose from an appeal of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decision 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 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.  Civil rights and women’s rights groups, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest group of unions, and a number of federal lawmakers supported Hibbs, as well as the US Justice Department.

>On the other hand, thirteen states 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.

The case is Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs , 01-1368.