WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court
ruled on Tuesday that states cannot be sued for money damages
for violating a key provision of a federal law that gives
workers time off for a serious medical condition, a decision
that could affect millions of state employees.
The high court by a 5-4 vote ruled that lawsuits against
states under the law were barred by state sovereign immunity,
rejecting state worker claims for money damages for violations
of a provision of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.
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. There are about 5
million state workers in the nation.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that states can be sued for
money damages under another provision of the law that allows
employees to take time off to care for a seriously ill family
But the high court's conservative majority ruled that the
self-care provision was different. It said it agreed with every
federal appeals court to have addressed the issue.
The Supreme Court's ruling was a defeat for a state
employee, Daniel Coleman, who worked for the Administrative
Office of the Courts for the Maryland judiciary.
He sued for money damages, claiming he was wrongly fired for
trying to take a 10-day medical leave in 2007 to deal with his
hypertension and diabetes.
A federal judge and a U.S. appeals court dismissed Coleman's
lawsuit, ruling the Constitution's 11th Amendment on state
sovereign immunity barred it.
Coleman's attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court and argued
the law represented a valid exercise of congressional power
under the 14th Amendment, nullifying the usual sovereign
immunity the states enjoy from lawsuits for money damages.
Maryland acknowledged that it cannot violate the law. But it
argued that it was constitutionally protected from such lawsuits
seeking money damages and that employees such as Coleman could
instead seek a court order reinstating them to their job.
In the court's main opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled
for the state, and the court's other conservatives either joined
his opinion or concurred in the outcome.
The court's four liberals dissented.
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
"Congress adopted leave policies from which all could
benefit," she said. "The inqeuality Congress sought to overcome
seems to me well within the national legislature's authority to
Women's rights groups and the American Civil Liberties
Union denounced the ruling.
"Today's decision leaves women more vulnerable to sex
discrimination and elevates states' rights over a woman's right
to be free from unconstitutional sex discrimination, including
pregnancy discrimination," said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal
The Supreme Court case is Coleman v. Court of Appeals of
Maryland, No. 10-1016.
For Coleman: Michael Foreman of The Civil Rights Appellate
Clinic at Pennsylvania State University.
For Maryland: John Howard, Deputy Attorney General of Maryland.
(Reporting by James Vicini)
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