There has always been a fine balance between the Constitutional power of Congress and individual State rights. At the heart of the Constitutional Debate and even the Civil War was the question -- are states sovereign in their dealings with matters of government and culpability and to what degree does their sovereignty remain solvent. Congress has both Constitutional power and applied power, and is expected to evolve with the cultural situation of society to protect the constituency and enact fair and reasonable legislation.
One seminal question becomes whether Congress constitutionally abrogated the State's 11th Amendment immunity when it passed the self-care leave provision of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act? This act required employers of over 50 individuals to allow for up to 12-weeks leave for varying circumstances of family need. Case law, for instance in Nevada v. Hibbs, held that Congress intended the FMLA to supersede any State protection against legal ramifications if the State failed to allow for the FMLA to be supported to the letter of the law. In Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, the Court found that the self-care provision, if it stood alone, did not abrogate the State of Maryland's immunity from suits or damages. Congress, in fact, seemed to believe that men and women would be taking medical leave in roughly equal numbers. Further, when Congress enacted FMLA, the self-care leave provision was not a congruent and proportional response to any discriminatory conduct, because that was not really the focus of the legislation. Thus, if a State violated anti-discrimination law, it could then be sued. However, in 5-4 the Court found for Maryland because it believed that the State had not discriminated against anyone within the guise of the FMLA.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is a federal law that requires covered employers to provide employees certain job-protected and unpaid leave rights for qualified medical or family reasons such as personal or family illness, military leave, pregnancy, adoption, or foster care. This Act was a major part of President Bill Clinton's agenda, and is administered by the United States Department of Labor (United States Department of Labor, 2012). The purpose of the Act was to provide more equitable and in-depth coverage so that individual employers would have more guidelines; and individual employees more structure when needing time off from work. Prior to the FMLA, leave could be denied for any reason based on the employer, and employees could even be fired for taking leave. By 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that about 80% of American workers who worked in FMLA covered worksites were eligible for FMLA approved leave. These benefits allow for up to 12-weeks unpaid, but job protected leave for the care of a new child or family member, recuperation from illness, or to address qualifying emergencies. Once the employee returns to work, the employee's job, or similar level job, is guaranteed, as are benefits and reinstatement of benefits upon returning to work. Some states have enacted their own family leave thresholds, but in general, Federal FMLA applies only to employers with more than 50 employees (Galinsky, et.al., 2008).
The idea of the FMLA in action is at the heart of a legal suit, Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland. In March, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot be sued for denying workers sick leave. This was based on an employee of the Maryland state courts, Daniel Coleman. He sued the state of Maryland for monetary damages after he was terminated from his job for requesting time to take care of his health. Typically, states cannot be sued for any type of damages due to their governmental nature. However, there are exceptions to this based on unconstitutional treatment, which includes discrimination. The High Court, however, ruled based on state sovereignty, not discrimination or individual rights (Mollmann, 2012).
One of the basic issues in Coleman is the issue of whether Congress tacitly repealed the sovereign immunity of states. In the United States, the Federal government has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued unless it has either waived that immunity or consented to the suit. As far back as 1980, in Hans v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that the 11th Amendment affirms that states possess sovereign immunity. This was affirmed in 1991 in the case of Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak, in which the court held that:
… we have understood the Eleventh Amendment to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition of our constitutional structure which it confirms; that the States entered the Federal system with their sovereignty intact; that the judicial authority in Article III is limited by this sovereignty, and that a State will therefore not be subject to suit in Federal Court unless it has consented to suit… (Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak, 1991).
States, therefore, have immunity, but cities, towns and other municipalities do not. Exceptions, as noted are based on discrimination, arbitration, suits brought by the Federal government or another State, suits filed against state officials who have acted illegally, or suits in which Congress has revered the 11th Amendment immunity. In Coleman, the legal question centered on the manner in which the FMLA was worded, and whether that covertly robbed states of sovereignty when dealing with family leave issues.
The FMLA Act allows an employee to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave per year, as noted, under certain circumstances. It also creates the private right for relief and damage in any Federal or State Court. Coleman filed suit, and alleged that the Maryland Court of Appeals, his employers, violated the FMLA law by denying his self-care leave, even if they were an instrument of the State. The Federal District Court dismissed the action on the grounds of sovereign immunity. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, affirmed, and held that the self-care provision was not directed at a pattern of gender-based discrimination and was neither congruent or proportional to a visible pattern of sex-based discrimination. Coleman believed that the self-care provision addresses both sex discrimination and stereotyping. However, the Court found that when FMLA was enacted, there was no evidence of any discrimination in leave or sick-leave policies. Instead, Congress was concerned about the fiscal and economic burdens imposed by illness-related job loss on families and about discrimination based on medical issues, not gender (Coleman v. Court of Appeals Maryland, 2012).
Much of the overall considerations in Coleman surrounding a 2003 case, Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs. This case more narrowly targeted the generalized issue of sex-based discrimination within the structure of FMLA. Congress, in enacting FMLA, invoked two Constitutional powers: regulation of private employers under the Commerce Clause and regulating public employees under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. In addition, one of the provisions noted is the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits states for denying equal protection to its citizens within the State jurisdiction (U.S. Constitution, 14th Amendment).
In Hibbs, the petitioner, William Hibbs worked for the Nevada State Department of Human Resources Welfare Division. He requested leave from his job under FMLA to care for his wife who had been injured in a car accident. The Department granted the request and gave Hibbs the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave as needed between May and December of 1997. Hibbs used the leave until August 5, 1997, after which time he did not return to work. The Nevada Welfare Department contacted Hibbs in October and requested that he return to work by November 12, 1997 since he had completely used his FMLA leave time. Hibbs sued for violations of the FMLA, seeking damages and other relief. The district court granted the Welfare Department summary judgment, based on Hibbs' claim under FMLA was prohibited by the 11th Amendment. Hibbs appeals to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, who reversed the District Court's summary judgment based on the view that FMLA was indeed a valid exercise of Congressional Power. The Supreme Court found that the FMLA validly revoked a State's sovereign immunity. The Court further acknowledge that when Congress enacted FMLA they were intending to ensure that the workplace was free from gender discrimination, to protect working people, particularly women who bear the primarily responsibility for family care, the right to retain jobs and benefits. Concluding, the Court said that FMLA's primary remedy "is congruent and proportional to its remedial object, and can be understood as responsive to, or designed to prevent, unconstitutional behavior" (Nevada v. Hibbs, 2003). Thus, the locus of the case was if an individual can sue a State for monetary damages in Federal Court, or whether that was a violation of the FMLA Act of 1993. In this case, the court said, yes, that Congress clearly intended to allow States to be sued if they failed to follow FMLA.
FMLA is the primary Federal law that is impacted by Coleman.…