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Women’s leader calls Supreme Court’s Coleman ruling “appalling and dangerous”

In reaction to this week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, issued a statement. In its opinion, the High Court affirmed a Fourth Circuit ruling holding that Congress did not constitutionally abrogate states’ Eleventh Amendment immunity when it passed the self-care leave provision of the Act. Therefore, a sharply divided Court plurality ruled that states cannot be sued by individuals under the FMLA’s “self-care” provision.

“Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals is a deep and bitter disappointment. By the narrowest of margins, the Court ruled that millions of state workers all across this country will have no meaningful recourse if their employers deny them medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This effectively puts state workers and their families at risk when workers become pregnant or illness strikes. It is an appalling and dangerous ruling that simply cannot stand,” stated Ness.

Previously, in Nevada Dept of Human Resources v Hibbs, the Supreme Court had ruled that Congress validly abrogated state sovereign immunity from claims under the FMLA’s family care provisions. Citing the gender-related nature of caregiving responsibilities, the Court in Hibbs noted that Congress enacted the statute partly in response to a record among the states of gender-based discrimination in the administration of state leave policies.

This rationale did not apply, however, to FMLA leave taken for one’s own serious health condition, which was at issue in the case at hand. At the time the FMLA was enacted, there was no evidence of such discrimination or stereotyping in sick-leave policies; Congress was concerned about the economic burdens imposed by illness-related job loss on employees and their families and about discrimination based on illness, not sex, the majority noted. “Without widespread evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave, it is apparent that the congressional purpose in enacting the self-care provision is unrelated to these supposed wrongs,” Justice Kennedy wrote. As such, Hibbs did not support a finding that Congress intended to abrogate sovereign immunity for violations of Sec. 102’s self-care provision.

The High Court rejected the employee’s contention that the FMLA’s self-care provision was a necessary adjunct to the family-care provision sustained in Hibbs. There are no congressional findings of, or evidence on, how the self-care provision is necessary to the family-care provisions or how it reduces employer discrimination against women, the Court noted.

Ness took issue with the Supreme Court’s approach and stated that the organization would work to ensure that states restored rights to their employees. “States should be held accountable for violating the fundamental rights of workers. All too frequently, workers suffer negative consequences after requesting or taking leave to address their medical needs. We intend to appeal to state governments to uphold these rights and pursue every possible avenue to restore them for all state workers. The FMLA has been law for nearly 20 years, and it has worked well to provide unpaid, job-protected family and medical leave to support workers with caregiving responsibilities. The Supreme Court previously upheld the rights of state workers to hold their employers accountable for violating the family leave provision of the FMLA, and it should have used the same standard to protect state workers who need medical leave under the law.”

Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion; Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined in large part. Ness commented on the dissent.

“As Justice Ginsberg said in her very powerful dissent, ‘the self-care provision validly enforces the right to be free from gender discrimination in the workplace.’ Justice Ginsburg noted that ‘[t]he plurality pays scant attention to the overarching aim of the FMLA: to make it feasible for women to work while sustaining family life. Over the course of eight years, Congress considered the problem of workplace discrimination against women, and devised the FMLA to reduce sex-based inequalities in leave programs. The self-care provision is a key part of that endeavor, and in my view, a valid exercise of congressional power….,’” she said.

“Even Justice Kennedy’s opinion acknowledged that ‘[d]ocumented discrimination against women in the general workplace is a persistent, unfortunate reality, and, we must assume, a still prevalent wrong. An explicit purpose of the Congress in adopting the FMLA was to improve workplace conditions for women,’” Ness continued.

In her statement, Ness said that the ruling “underscores how tenuous the rights of workers are in this country, and the urgent imperative for the Senate to confirm only those justices and judges who have a demonstrated commitment to equal rights under the law and a real understanding of the impact of their rulings on women, workers and others who struggle to make ends meet.”