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May 28, 2003
FMLA Applies to State Employees, High Court Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state-government workers may sue for damages if denied unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

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The court's 6-3 decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by William Hibbs, a social worker who took time off from his Nevada state job to care for his wife after she was injured in a 1996 car crash. A dispute over how much time he was entitled to led to his firing, which in turn led to the lawsuit. Hibbs maintained that Nevada had failed to give him the full 12 weeks allowed him under FMLA, adding that he would have been given the time if he were a woman.

The suit itself has been on hold, awaiting a ruling on Nevada's move for dismissal on grounds that no individual may sue a state unless the state agrees to be sued or unless Congress explicitly and justifiably allows it.

The Supreme Court settled that issue in Hibbs' favor - in a surprising departure from its trend in recent years to expand the rights of the states at the expense of federal control. Even more surprising, according to the Associated Press, was the writing of the majority opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the main architect of the states' rights shift since the mid-1990s.

The AP reports that the ruling means the nearly 5 million people who work for state governments have the same rights as private employees under the 1993 law.

"The court is saying that there are some overriding and overreaching concerns that the federal government has a role to play in addressing, and sex discrimination is one of them," said one of Hibbs' lawyers, Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Starting in 1995, the court has issued rulings that struck down or weakened laws meant to protect women victims of violent crime and keep guns away from schools and to protect disabled people and the elderly in the workplace.

But family leave is a different matter, Rehnquist said. He noted that the Supreme Court has already ruled that Congress has the power to pass national laws that attack racial and sex discrimination.

"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.

Source: The Associated Press, via Newsday

Posted in two sections:
Benefits > Leave/FMLA
Compliance > FMLA
KF 7-03

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