Former employee can sue Nevada for sex discrimination

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled Nevada can't claim sovereign immunity to escape a sex discrimination suit.

William Hibbs, a welfare case worker for the state of Nevada, filed suit in U.S. District Court saying he was fired after taking leave to care for his wife, who was seriously injured in a car crash. He accused the state of sex discrimination, saying a woman worker would have been granted leave to care for a family member.

But the state put his suit on hold, claiming immunity under the 11th Amendment. The district court in Reno agreed, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, granting Hibbs the right to sue the state for violating the Family Medical Leave Act.

In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed Tuesday. The majority opinion by Justice William Rhenquist said Congress was within its rights to exempt the Family Medical Leave Act from sovereign immunity. The opinion said Congress did the same in the Civil Rights Act as well, but pointed out that didn't eliminate gender discrimination.

"States continue to rely on invalid gender stereotypes in the employment contest, specifically in the administration of leave benefits," said the opinion quoting testimony before Congress.

It also said Congress had testimony that, even when state laws were not discriminatory, they were applied in discriminatory ways.

Rhenquist wrote that laws like Nevada's leaving it to supervisors to grant or deny leave "leaves employees open to discretionary and possibly unequal treatment."

Reno lawyer Treva Hearne, who defended Hibbs in the case, said the ruling means they can proceed with their federal court lawsuit accusing the state of violating Hibbs's rights by cutting off his leave.

Hibbs took time off after his wife, Dianne, was seriously injured in a car wreck. He originally took paid leave, but when he asked to extend it using the terms of the Family Medical Leave Act, he was told he used that up at the same time he used his paid leave.

No worker should have to choose between keeping their job and meeting obligations at home, Hibbs told an Associated Press reporter after the court sided with him.

"My bottom line in this whole thing is that I've done nothing wrong, I followed their procedures and I did everything they told me to do," in asking for time off, Hibbs said. "And because of that I get fired."

Officials ordered him back to work shortly before his wife was to undergo major surgery in 1997 and, when he failed to return to the job, fired him.

Assemblyman John Oceguera, D-North Las Vegas, introduced Assembly Bill 341 to put Nevada under the Family Medical Leave Act and several other federal laws he said are needed to guarantee state workers have the same rights under law as other public and private employees.

He said Tuesday he was pleased the U.S. Supreme Court agreed the state should be subject to those laws. He said he will have to look at the decision and talk with staff to determine whether his bill should still be processed.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Rehnquist, and Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with the outcome of the case.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented.

"This is important because the court is saying that there are some overriding and overreaching concerns that the federal government has a role to play in addressing, and sex discrimination is one of them," said Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women and Families.


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