In Victory for Working Families, High Court Says States Must Comply With Family & Medical Leave Act

May 27, 2003 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


NEW YORK — In what the American Civil Liberties Union called the most important sex discrimination case since the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy was struck down, the Supreme Court today held that state government employers are not immune from lawsuits under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

“Today, the Supreme Court recognized that when employers treat women as mothers first and workers second, or assume that men don’t need time off to care for children or family members, they do both women and men a grave disservice,” said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women’s Right Project.

In a brief filed with the Court, the ACLU had joined with other civil rights organizations in urging the Court to apply the FMLA to state employers in today’s case, Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, No. 01-1368.

The medical leave act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to all covered employees, both male and female, to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member. Some lower courts, however, expanding upon Supreme Court decisions that held state employers immune from lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, had ruled that state employees denied leave under the FMLA could not sue their employers for money damages.

In a surprising 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court rejected this conclusion and held that the FMLA was an appropriate effort to protect against sex discrimination by state employers in granting family leave. The ruling affects about five million state employees.

ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said “today’s ruling is an encouraging sign, given the Court’s recent willingness to embrace states’ rights over civil rights. The decision by Chief Justice Rehnquist is an important reaffirmation of the power of Congress to ensure that victims of discrimination can have their day in the court.”

In concluding that the Family and Medical Leave Act was a valid exercise of Congress’s power to override states’ immunity from suit, the Supreme Court held that the act’s guarantee of leave to all workers, regardless of their gender, attacked the stereotype formally perpetuated by many state employers that caregiving was a woman’s responsibility rather than a man’s. Such stereotypes stigmatized female employees, the Court held, and discouraged men from taking on family responsibilities. The Court thus concluded that the FMLA’s guarantee of leave protected against such discriminatory stereotypes.

The ACLU’s friend-of-the-court brief in the case is online at:

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release