The Supreme Court dealt middle class workers another devastating blow on Tuesday ruling that states cannot be sued for money damages for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It’s a decision that could affect millions of state workers and chips away at the meager protections women in particular have left from workplace discrimination.
At issue was the law’s “self-care” provision that allows a worker to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to recover from a serious illness or medical condition. In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled that states can be sued for money damages under a different provision of the law that allows employees to take time off to care for a seriously ill family member.
But Tuesday the Court’s conservative majority, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the self-care provision was somehow different.
Daniel Coleman worked for the Administrative Office of the Courts for the Maryland judiciary and sued the state for money damages claiming he was wrongly fired for trying to take a 10-day medical leave in 2007 to deal with hypertension and diabetes. Maryland argued it was constitutionally protected from such lawsuits under the 11th Amendment and five of the justices on the Court agreed.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the rare step of reading part of her dissent from the bench and said the law was a proper exercise of Congress’ power to remedy the problem of workplace discrimination. “Congress adopted leave policies from which all could benefit,” she said. “The inequality Congress sought to overcome seems to me well within the national legislature’s authority to address.”
The point underscored by Justice Ginsburg cannot be stressed enough. This is a decision that will dramatically impact women who rely on the FMLA to protect their job when they take maternity leave. Now, thanks to the Court, should a state employer violate FMLA during that leave she effectively has no remedy.
So just so we’re clear, that means that in the United States women (or men for that matter) still have no paid family leave and now no longer have the ability to enforce the very laws designed to protect that leave in the first place.
Photo from Emery Co Photo via flickr.