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June 26, 2002
Supreme Court to Decide Reach of FMLA
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U.S. Supreme Court said that it will decide whether states benefit from immunity from lawsuits by state workers under a 1993 federal law that allows employees to take time off to care for a seriously ill family member. The justices will consider whether the Family and Medical Leave Act represents a valid exercise of congressional power to nullify the sovereign immunity of the states under the Constitution from lawsuits by individuals.

Under provisions at issue in the case, eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for a parent, child or spouse with a serious health condition.

The case involves William Hibbs, an employee of the Nevada Department of Human Resources, who sought leave in 1997 to care for his ailing wife. He received permission for the full 12 weeks.

His employer also granted him a special benefit of paid leave donated by other employees available under state law known as "catastrophic leave," but said it would count as part of his entitlement of 12 weeks leave.

Hibbs had requested 200 hours of catastrophic leave. He argued his leave under the federal law should begin only after his catastrophic leave had ended. He was dismissed at the end of 1997, and then sued, arguing his employer had violated the terms of the federal law.

A federal judge ruled the Constitution's 11th Amendment on state sovereign immunity barred Hibbs' lawsuit. However, a U.S. appeals court disagreed, ruling the law represents a valid use of congressional power.

Nevada, supported by 12 other states, appealed to the Supreme Court. The Justice Department defended the federal law, saying it responds to the continuing effects of well-documented, historic gender discrimination at work.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments and then decide the case during its upcoming term that begins in October.

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