It is not easy to be a parent. It is not easy for a parent to establish work-and-life balance and to find more time for kids. It seems that our state wants to make parenting even more difficult than it is now. Indeed, such thoughts easily come to one’s mind when he or she learns about the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Coleman v Court of Appeals of Maryland. This decision basically limits one’s rights to sue employers for violations of family leave rules. At first glance, the case has nothing to do with parenting. However, with deeper insight, it is clear that the principle upheld in the Coleman case will have a significant impact on parenting.
In the United States employees are entitled to unpaid and job-protected leave for family or medical reasons by virtue of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). In particular, FMLA mandates employers to permit leave to an employee because of their son or daughter's birth. Also, an employee may take leave because of serious health conditions which make him or her unable to work properly. However, employers, in fact, not always allow leaves, and thus, violate the law. One of the ways to defend one’s right to leave is to bring a lawsuit against an employer. This is exactly what happened in the Coleman case. Daniel Coleman worked for the Maryland Court of Appeals. When he asked for sick leave, he was informed that will be fired out if he did not resign. Coleman sued the state court in a federal court for the district of Maryland for violations of the FMLA and demanded compensation. His claim was denied on the ground that the Maryland Court of Appeals has sovereign immunity from suits for damage. Coleman appealed. However, the Court of Appeal only reaffirmed an earlier decision. Finally, Coleman reached the Supreme Court.
The majority of the Supreme Court judges ruled that state workers cannot sue their employers and seek compensation for the violation of the FMLA. However, it was not a vast majority decision. Such a decision seems to be strange since in Nevada Department of Human Resources v Hibbs the Supreme Court allows to sue state employers as far as violations of the right to leave for the care of family members are concerned. The difference between these two cases is the following, in Hibbs's case the employee defended his right to leave to care of a family member, while in Coleman's case the employee defended his right to leave to care of himself. This insignificant difference made judges of the Supreme Court reach dramatically different conclusions. The reason why in Hibbs case judges allowed to sue the state employer is that interpreted the right to leave for the care of family members as that one that eliminates the sex-role stereotype that to care of family members is primarily a woman’s occupation. The Supreme Court believes that if it permitted to sue a state employer in the Hibbs case, it would lead to sex discrimination, since the employer who complained was male. However, in the Coleman case, sex discrimination is not an issue, and thus, another decision can be adopted. In any case, the logic is obviously odd. It means that it is permissible to fight for the right to take care of someone but one cannot fight for one’s right to take care of himself.
The Coleman case caused a significant split in the judges’ opinion. Thus, five judges held the decision while four judged disagreed. Among those who disagreed with the majority, the decision is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She pointed out that the majority decision makes it more complicated for a woman to live balanced lives, at home and in gainful employment. The judge views the FMLA as an appropriate response to the pervasive discriminatory treatment of pregnant women. She specifies that the law allows avoiding discouragement employers from hiring women. Thus, Ginsburg explains that the FMLA is meant to guarantee to a woman that she can return to the job after giving birth.
Personally, I agree with judge Ginsburg. For an ordinary citizen the decision in the Coleman case means that if his or her right to leave is violated by a state employer and sex discrimination is not an issue, he or she cannot sue the violator because he has sovereign immunity. In other words, if a state employer denies a woman her right to leave in order to take care of her child, he cannot be sued. According to the logic of the Supreme Court, a state employer can be sued only when a case involves an issue of sex discrimination. However, it is difficult to see how the issue of sex discrimination may arise in case if a woman seeks a leave to take care of a child. By contrast, an employer may claim that it rejects the sex-role stereotype that it is mainly women who should take care of children, and thus, no discrimination can be seen in a refusal of the right to leave.
The Supreme Court established a very dangerous principle that may complicate life for many women who have children. In particular, the decision in the Coleman case illustrates that state employers are immune and they are not liable for violations of leave rules. It means that there is no effective way to protect the right to leave which is very important for women with children.About the author