U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Impacts Women’s Rights

By a five-to-four decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Marylandruled on March 20, 2012 that state workers cannot sue for money damages if their employers deny them medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). This ruling puts state workers and their families at risk when workers become pregnant or seriously ill, and is a blow to women’s rights in this country.

The FMLA entitles eligible employees to take up to twelve weeks of job-protected unpaid leave per year, which under the “self-care” provision may be used when the employee is disabled due to pregnancy or a serious health condition, but the Supreme Court’s ruling this week makes it so that state workers cannot sue for damages if their self-care medical leave rights are denied.

In her poignant and powerful dissent, Justice Ginsburg stated, “[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.”

Ginsberg explains, “It would scant make sense to provide job-related leave for a woman to care for a newborn, but not for her recovery from delivery, a miscarriage, or the birth of a stillborn baby. And allowing States to provide no pregnancy-disability leave at all, given that only women can become pregnant, would obviously ‘exclude far more women than men from the workplace.’”

When Congress enacted the FMLA, they entitled employees to unpaid leave for a serious health condition, rather than singling out pregnancy or childbirth, to ward off unconstitutional discrimination against women. Congress explained:

“A law providing special protection to women… in addition to being inequitable runs the risk of causing discriminatory treatment. Employers might be less inclined to hire women… For example, legislation addressing the needs of pregnant women only might encourage discriminatory practices against women of child bearing age. Legislation addressing the needs of all workers equally does not have this effect. By addressing the serious leave needs of all employees, the FMLA avoids providing employers the temptation to discriminate [against women].”

The plurality opinion takes this rationale and turns it on its head, reasoning that because the self-care provision of the FMLA protects both disabled men and women, that its purpose is not to correct gender discrimination, and therefore the provision does not overcome States’ sovereign immunity from law suits for money damages.

As pregnancy discrimination attorneys, we are saddened by the plurality’s refusal to support State employees’ rights to pursue damages for denial of self-care leave under the FMLA. States should be held accountable for violating the rights of workers, including the rights of women to have their jobs protected while taking leave to recover from pregnancy and childbirth.