Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland: A Warning to Women


Last week the U.S. Supreme Court held that states cannot be sued for denying workers sick leave. An employee of the Maryland state courts, Daniel Coleman, had sued for monetary damages after he was fired for requesting time off to take care of his health.

States generally cannot be sued for damages, but one exception is in cases that involve unconstitutional treatment, including discrimination. While the case decided on Tuesday therefore framed in terms of state sovereignty, the Court’s very understanding of discrimination was at stake.

The majority opinion handing down on Tuesday should be a warning to women: the Supreme Court most definitely does not have our backs.

Here’s how.

US federal law protects the right to sick and family leave (unpaid leave either to take care of yourself or of a family member such as a spouse, an elderly parent or a newborn child) through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In 2003, in the context of family leave-related discrimination against a state employee of Nevada, William Hibbs, the Supreme Court detailed the congressional intention behind the FMLA as predominantly a desire to overcome gender-based discrimination. Indeed, the 2003 ruling was very clear: “The FMLA aims to protect the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace.”

At the time, the Court held that employees of the state of Nevada were entitled to seek monetary damages for infringements of the family leave part of the FMLA. The Court felt that absent such due process guarantee, government officials would somehow lose their constitutional right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex. The final opinion was narrowly focused on the family leave provisions of the law because those were the provisions at stake in the case at hand, but prior to this week’s case, it seemed reasonable to apply the court’s conclusions in the 2003 case to the FMLA as a whole.

This week’s ruling limits that precedent by concluding that the U.S. Congress didn’t have gender-based discrimination in mind when it enacted the sick leave protections of the FMLA.

The court’s analysis is based on technical considerations of what evidence Congress had before it when it enacted the FMLA—“Congress made no findings, and received no specific testimony” that women might face discrimination for taking more sick leave than men.

But the result is a decision that essentially says that sick leave—taking care of oneself—is fundamentally different from family leave—taking care of someone else—in that it does not depend on gender differences or stereotypes. This is an erroneous conclusion.

Had the Court argued that men and women take equal amounts of long-term sick leave—which is true—the majority opinion in this week’s Coleman case would at least only have been a selective reading of the facts, not a retrograde interpretation of discrimination laws. However, the Court argued that even though the denial of sick leave might have a disproportionate impact on women, denying anyone the protection of such leave still does not constitute discrimination. Such a conclusion flies in the face of international human rights law and even US legal definitions of disparate impact as discrimination.

It is ironic that this sentence was handed down the same week new research on health insurance was published, showing that women still pay more than men for the same health plan. Private insurers justify the price differential by reference to the fact that, all other things being equal, women need more medical care than men, notably due to our ability to bear children and recommended routine health visits related to our reproductive organs.

Of course, PAP smears and prenatal check-ups do not automatically translate into time off or sick leave, though as most of us know, they generally do. The Court majority opinion glosses over this fact by noting that most states have other protections that allow women time off to take care of their health. Again the Court majority inexplicably insists that the denial of a right that disproportionately affects women qua women is not discrimination, all the while reaffirming the fact that the differential impact is real.

None of the three female justices of the Supreme Court held with the majority. Justices Ginsberg, Kagan, and Sotomayor were joined by Justice Breyer to resoundingly disagree with the majority opinion in Tuesday’s ruling in the Coleman case. These four Justices rightly noted that “[i]t would make scant sense to provide job-protected 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.”

Indeed, it makes no sense as a matter of effective policy or legitimate legal analysis.

It does, however, make the same warped sense as the many recent state initiatives to simultaneously curb access to contraception, abortion, and child benefits. The message this week’s majority opinion for the Supreme Court seems to send is that women matter only as incubators and care-givers and not as equal citizens in a modern democracy.

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