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January 15, 2003
High Court Hearing Case on FMLA, States' Rights
The
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U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments today in a case that has become a widely watched test of federal labor law as it applies to employees of state governments.

The case centers on Bill Hibbs, who was fired from the Nevada welfare office five years ago because he had missed too much work while caring for his wife, Diane, who was injured in a 1996 auto accident.

Hibbs, citing the federal Family Medical Leave Act, believes he was discriminated against, in that he was denied additional time off work because he is man. "It was reverse discrimination," he told the Associated Press.

But the before that issue is settled, the Supreme Court must decide whether a state worker like Hibbs can sue state agencies for FMLA violations at all.

Nevada claims it is constitutionally immune from Hibbs' lawsuit under the 11th Amendment, which gives states "sovereign immunity" from certain lawsuits. Congress can override that immunity through legislation, as it did in 1960s civil rights laws.

The AP reports that several labor unions, family advocacy groups and the federal government believe the principle should apply when it comes to FMLA, because the law combats and corrects state gender discrimination.

Nevada and 12 other states say it doesn't, and that Congress was not justified in overriding its immunity.

Hibbs' problems began with a 1996 Mother's Day car accident. Diane suffered neck and spine injuries when a driver ran a red light in Reno and slammed into the family's pickup truck.
Hibbs missed work for more than five months in 1997 to care for her, using time donated by colleagues and leave he thought was guaranteed under federal law.

But he was dismissed for not working from August through mid-November because the state had counted his medical leave concurrently with the donated "catastrophic" time off.

Hibbs maintains he was treated unfairly, and that a woman would have been granted the additional leave.

His lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, saying that states are subject to such lawsuits because of "widespread intentional discrimination." The appeals court cited studies showing gender discrimination by states that had granted leave to women but not men.

Nevada Deputy Attorney General Paul Taggart fiercely disputes the 9th Circuit's finding.

"We think that allegation is shocking, to say that all 50 states as a general matter can be assumed to be discriminating against their employees," Taggart said.

The U.S. Solicitor General's office in Washington is arguing on Hibbs' behalf.

Hibbs, 46, lacks medical insurance and has had to sell four vehicles, his horses, and a $140,000 house to care for his wife, whose pain requires heavy sedation. "I lost everything, but they don't care," he told the AP. "This isn't about me anymore."

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