A Maryland state employee filed suit after his termination from the court system. He claimed that he was the victim of race discrimination, and also that his termination violated the Family and Medical Leave Act. The lower courts rejected both contentions, but the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the issue involving his FMLA claim. This blog discussed the caseearlier.
That part of the decision related to the immunity of states from private lawsuits in federal courts. Under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, states cannot be sued in federal courts unless the state has consented to the suit, or Congress has specifically, and legally, removed the immunity.
The Supreme Court earlier decided that Congress removed the immunity for FMLA suits against states when the employee was using FMLA protection to care for another person. The FMLA protected workers in that situation because of ingrained sex discrimination, “the pervasive sex-role stereotype that caring for family members is women’s work.”
The FMLA offers protection to workers taking time off for their own illness or disability also; but according to the Fourth Circuit, the motivation for the law did not implicate any constitutional protections. Instead, Congress found that the economic effect of job loss due to illness was profound, and sought a way to limit it when larger employers were involved. Because there was no constitutional imperative underlying the law, Congress could not validly permit the states to be sued.
The petition for certiorari pointed out cases in which the circuit courts believe that the law has to stand or fall as a unit, therefore all of its parts must be viewed together. Others specifically requested the high court’s guidance.
The Supreme Court does not announce why it agreed to hear a case; it becomes clearer (sometimes) after the decision comes out. The Rehnquist Court upheld states’ rights to be free of federal legislation, but this newer Court may go in a different direction.