The Supreme Court
Supporting Family Leave
The Supreme Court softened its stance on state immunity from discrimination suits when it ruled in favor of a Nevada state employee, William Hibbs. Hibbs sued the Nevada Department of Human Resources when he was denied 12 weeks leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) to care for his wife, who was recovering from neck surgery and other injuries related to a car accident.
Hibbs first asked for the leave in April and May of 1997 and was granted the right to use that leave intermittently as needed between May and December 1997. Hibbs used it as needed until August 5, 1997, after which he did not return to work. In October 1997 the state informed him he had exhausted his FMLA leave and that he must report to work by November 12, 1997. When Hibbs did not return to work on that date he was fired.
The Family and Medical Amendment Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) entitles an eligible employee to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave annually for the onset of a “serious health condition” by the employee's spouse or other family-related medical needs. The act is most frequently used by women after giving birth to a child or by person to care for elderly parents or children.
Hibbs sued the state in district court seeking damages. The district court ruled in favor of the state on the grounds that it was protected by the Eleventh Amendment from being sued and that Hibbs' Fourteenth Amendment rights had not been violated. Hibbs appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, which reversed the district court. The state then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
“Millions of state workers will now have full protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act, giving them greater ability to balance their work lives against crises at home. The decision also promotes sexual equality because family care has often fallen on women.
But the Supreme Court is still wrongly discriminating among kinds of discrimination. Because it is sympathetic to gender-based claims, it has held that states are not immune to suits like the one at issue yesterday. But in the case of age and disability, about which the court has been more skeptical, states can discriminate without fear of being sued for damages.
This makes no sense.”
—The New York Times editorial on May 28, 2003
Most expected the Supreme Court would continue on its path of protecting states' rights and were surprised by the Court's May 27, 2003, upholding the 9th Circuit Court and ruling in favor of Hibbs against the state. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the 6 to 3 opinion of the court and was joined by Justices O'Connor, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter. In addition Souter filed a concurring opinion that was joined by Ginsburg and Breyer. Stevens filed a separate concurring opinion. The dissenting opinion was written by Kennedy, who was joined by Scalia and Thomas. Scalia also wrote his own dissenting opinion.
In writing for the Court, Rehnquist said:
In his dissent, Justice Kennedy supported the right of states to design their own benefits plans:
Today you are entitled to up to 12 weeks family medical leave to take care of a family member. Your employer must have a job waiting for you when you return to work after this leave.
I would bet most companies would also like to be exempt from the FMLA, so they could design their own “social benefits regime.” In fact, before the FMLA was passed into law, President George Bush, Sr. vetoed it twice calling it a “costly government mandate” that would result in lost jobs, reduce worker benefits and American productivity, and make it difficult to compete internationally. After Bill Clinton took office, the FMLA was the first major piece of legislation enacted during his administration.
Interestingly the current President George Bush asked his Justice Department to write a brief in support of Hibbs. In the brief, Bush's Justice Department wrote, “This nation has a lengthy and regrettable history of discrimination on the basis of gender. For generations, state laws and conduct relegated women to a position of social, cultural, economic, and political inferiority.”
Another even more shocking ruling by the Supreme Court during its 2003 session is the next case I'll discuss, Lawrence v. Texas.