Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs

538 U.S. 721 (2003)

(Sec. 5 of 14th Amendment)

 

Context

The Family and Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993 and allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for various family emergencies, including caring for an ailing family member, to eligible employees. The Act also gives employees the right to sue their employer if they are denied such leave. William Hibbs, an employee of the Nevada Department of Human Resources, Welfare Division, requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for his sick wife, which the Department awarded. During his time of absence, the Department told him his 12 weeks were up, when Hibbs did not show up for work, the Department terminated his position. Hibbs brought suit in federal court, requesting money damages. The Supreme Court ruled that an individual is free to sue for money damages if there is a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act, even if the employee works for a state. Chief Justice Rehnquist cited City of Boerne v. Flores, which defined the “congruence and proportionality” requirement. The congruence and proportionality requirement applies to laws passed under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, and gives the court sole authority to determine which rights are protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, and show that whatever the injury and remedy are “congruent and proportional”. In this case, Chief Justice Rehnquist determined that the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed to protect the rights of those requesting leave, as there was evidence to suggest strong and discriminatory gender-based stereotyping in granting leave for family-related purposes. The Act ensured that all eligible cases would be considered, and is “congruent and proportional” in its approach. As such, the law exists to prevent state or employer infringements on individuals’ constitutional rights, which makes it permissible under the Fourteenth Amendment enforcement clause. Justice Kennedy, Justice Scalia, and Justice Thomas field a dissent, claiming that Congress had not presented evidence to suggest that there was gender-based discrimination in all states to preempt the Act.

Facts:

Petitioners include the Nevada Department of Human Resources (Department) and two of its officers. Respondent William Hibbs (hereinafter respondent) worked for the Department's Welfare Division. In April and May 1997, he sought leave under the FMLA to care for his ailing wife, who was recovering from a car accident and neck surgery. The Department granted his request for the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave and authorized him to use the leave intermittently as needed between May and December 1997. Respondent did so until August 5, 1997, after which he did not return to work. In October 1997, the Department informed respondent that he had exhausted his FMLA leave, that no further leave would be granted, and that he must report to work by November 12, 1997. Respondent failed to do so and was terminated.

Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs

Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs

Issue:

Whether an individual may sue a State for money damages in federal court for violation of § 2612(a)(1)(C).

Reasoning:

The Constitution does not provide for federal jurisdiction over suits against nonconsenting States.

Congress may, however, abrogate such immunity in federal court if it makes its intention to abrogate unmistakably clear in the language of the statute and acts pursuant to a valid exercise of its power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The clarity of Congress' intent here is not fairly debatable. The Act enables employees to seek damages "against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction," and Congress has defined "public agency" to include both "the government of a State or political subdivision thereof" and "any agency of . . . a State, or a political subdivision of a State." This case turns, then, on whether Congress acted within its constitutional authority when it sought to abrogate the States' immunity for purposes of the FMLA's family-leave provision.

In enacting the FMLA, Congress relied on two of the powers vested in it by the Constitution: its Article I commerce power and its power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce that Amendment's guarantees. Congress may not abrogate the States' sovereign immunity pursuant to its Article I power over commerce. Congress may, however, abrogate States' sovereign immunity through a valid exercise of its § 5 power, for "the Eleventh Amendment, and the principle of state sovereignty which it embodies, are necessarily limited by the enforcement provisions of § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment."

Two provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment are relevant here: Section 5 grants Congress the power "to enforce" the substantive guarantees of § 1--among them, equal protection of the laws--by enacting "appropriate legislation." Congress may, in the exercise of its § 5 power, do more than simply proscribe conduct that we have held unconstitutional. "'Congress' power "to enforce" the Amendment includes the authority both to remedy and to deter violation of rights guaranteed thereunder by prohibiting a somewhat broader swath of conduct, including that which is not itself forbidden by the Amendment's text.'" In other words, Congress may enact so-called prophylactic legislation that proscribes facially constitutional conduct, in order to prevent and deter unconstitutional conduct.

It falls to this Court, not Congress, to define the substance of constitutional guarantees. Section 5 legislation reaching beyond the scope of § 1's actual guarantees must be an appropriate remedy for identified constitutional violations, not "an attempt to substantively redefine the States' legal obligations." We distinguish appropriate prophylactic legislation from "substantive redefinition of the Fourteenth Amendment right at issue," by applying the test set forth in City of Boerne: Valid § 5 legislation must exhibit "congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end."

The FMLA aims to protect the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace. We have held that statutory classifications that distinguish between males and females are subject to heightened scrutiny. For a gender-based classification to withstand such scrutiny, it must "serve important governmental objectives," and "the discriminatory means employed [must be] substantially related to the achievement of those objectives." We now inquire whether Congress had evidence of a pattern of constitutional violations on the part of the States in this area.

The history of the many state laws limiting women's employment opportunities is chronicled in--and, until relatively recently, was sanctioned by--this Court's own opinions.

Congress responded to this history of discrimination by abrogating States' sovereign immunity in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we sustained this abrogation in Fitzpatrick. But state gender discrimination did not cease. "It can hardly be doubted that . . . women still face pervasive, although at times more subtle, discrimination . . . in the job market." According to evidence that was before Congress when it enacted the FMLA, States continue to rely on invalid gender stereotypes in the employment context, specifically in the administration of leave benefits. Reliance on such stereotypes cannot justify the States' gender discrimination in this area. The long and extensive history of sex discrimination prompted us to hold that measures that differentiate on the basis of gender warrant heightened scrutiny; here, as in Fitzpatrick, the persistence of such unconstitutional discrimination by the States justifies Congress' passage of prophylactic § 5 legislation.

The States' record of unconstitutional participation in, and fostering of, gender-based discrimination in the administration of leave benefits is weighty enough to justify the enactment of prophylactic § 5 legislation.

Congress directed its attention to state gender discrimination, which triggers a heightened level of scrutiny. The standard for demonstrating the constitutionality of a gender-based classification is more difficult to meet than our rational-basis test--it must "serve important governmental objectives" and be "substantially related to the achievement of those objectives."

The impact of the discrimination targeted by the FMLA is significant. Congress determined: "Historically, denial or curtailment of women's employment opportunities has been traceable directly to the pervasive presumption that women are mothers first, and workers second. This prevailing ideology about women's roles has in turn justified discrimination against women when they are mothers or mothers-to-be."

Congress' chosen remedy, the family-care leave provision of the FMLA, is "congruent and proportional to the targeted violation." Congress had already tried unsuccessfully to address this problem through Title VII and the amendment of Title VII by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Here, as in Katzenbach, Congress again confronted a "difficult and intractable problem," where previous legislative attempts had failed. Such problems may justify added prophylactic measures in response.

Congress "is not confined to the enactment of legislation that merely parrots the precise wording of the Fourteenth Amendment," but may prohibit "a somewhat broader swath of conduct, including that which is not itself forbidden by the Amendment's text." For example, this Court has upheld certain prophylactic provisions of the Voting Rights Act as valid exercises of Congress' § 5 power, including the literacy test ban and preclearance requirements for changes in States' voting procedures.

Unlike the statutes at issue in City of Boerne, Kimel, and Garrett, which applied broadly to every aspect of state employers' operations, the FMLA is narrowly targeted at the fault line between work and family--precisely where sex-based overgeneralization has been and remains strongest--and affects only one aspect of the employment relationship.

We also find significant the many other limitations that Congress placed on the scope of this measure. The FMLA requires only unpaid leave and applies only to employees who have worked for the employer for at least one year and provided 1,250 hours of service within the last 12 months. Employees in high-ranking or sensitive positions are simply ineligible for FMLA leave; of particular importance to the States, the FMLA expressly excludes from coverage state elected officials, their staffs, and appointed policymakers. Employees must give advance notice of foreseeable leave, and employers may require certification by a health care provider of the need for leave. In choosing 12 weeks as the appropriate leave floor, Congress chose "a middle ground, a period long enough to serve 'the needs of families' but not so long that it would upset 'the legitimate interests of employers.'” Moreover, the cause of action under the FMLA is a restricted one: The damages recoverable are strictly defined and measured by actual monetary losses, and the accrual period for backpay is limited by the Act's 2-year statute of limitations.

Holding:

Employees of the State of Nevada may recover money damages in the event of the State's failure to comply with the family-care provision of the Act.

§ 2612(a)(1)(C) is congruent and proportional to its remedial object, and can "be understood as responsive to, or designed to prevent unconstitutional behavior."

 

Key Takeaway

The FMLA explicitly gave private citizens the right to sue the State, the problem it addressed was pervasive and invidious, and the remedy was congruent and proportional, so it’s constitutional for citizens to recover money damages for state violations of the law.


Court Syllabus

Respondent Hibbs (hereinafter respondent), an employee of the Nevada Department of Human Resources (Department), sought leave to care for his ailing wife under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which entitles an eligible employee to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave annually for the onset of a "serious health condition" in the employee's spouse and for other reasons. The Department granted respondent's request for the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave, but eventually informed him that he had exhausted that leave and that he must report to work by a certain date. Respondent failed to do so and was terminated. Pursuant to FMLA provisions creating a private right of action to seek both equitable relief and money damages "against any employer (including a public agency)," that "interfered with, restrained, or denied the exercise of" FMLA rights, respondent sued petitioners, the Department and two of its officers, in Federal District Court seeking damages and injunctive and declaratory relief for, inter alia, violations of § 2612(a)(1)(C). The court awarded petitioners summary judgment on the grounds that the FMLA claim was barred by the Eleventh Amendment and that respondent's Fourteenth Amendment rights had not been violated. The Ninth Circuit reversed.

Held:

State employees may recover money damages in federal court in the event of the State's failure to comply with the FMLA's family-care provision. Congress may abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court if it makes its intention to abrogate unmistakably clear in the language of the statute and acts pursuant to a valid exercise of its power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The FMLA satisfies the clear statement rule. Congress also acted within its authority under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment when it sought to abrogate the States' immunity for purposes of the FMLA's family-leave provision. In the exercise of its § 5 power, Congress may enact so-called prophylactic legislation that proscribes facially constitutional conduct in order to prevent and deter unconstitutional conduct, but it may not attempt to substantively redefine the States' legal obligations. The test for distinguishing appropriate prophylactic legislation from substantive redefinition is that valid § 5 legislation must exhibit "congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end." The FMLA aims to protect the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Statutory classifications that distinguish between males and females are subject to heightened scrutiny, i.e., they must "serv[e] important governmental objectives," and "the discriminatory means employed [must be] substantially related to the achievement of those objectives." When it enacted the FMLA, Congress had before it significant evidence of a long and extensive history of sex discrimination with respect to the administration of leave benefits by the States, which is weighty enough to justify the enactment of prophylactic § 5 legislation. Garrett and Kimel, in which the Court reached the opposite conclusion, are distinguished on the ground that the § 5 legislation there at issue responded to a purported tendency of state officials to make age- or disability-based distinctions, characteristics that are not judged under a heightened review standard, but pass equal protection muster if there is a rational basis for enacting them.  Here, because the standard for demonstrating the constitutionality of a gender-based classification is more difficult to meet than the rational-basis test, it was easier for Congress to show a pattern of state constitutional violations. The impact of the discrimination targeted by the FMLA, which is based on mutually reinforcing stereotypes that only women are responsible for family caregiving and that men lack domestic responsibilities, is significant. Moreover, Congress' chosen remedy, the FMLA's family-care provision, is "congruent and proportional to the targeted violation." Congress had already tried unsuccessfully to address this problem through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Where previous legislative attempts have failed, such problems may justify added prophylactic measures in response. By creating an across-the-board, routine employment benefit for all eligible employees, Congress sought to ensure that family-care leave would no longer be stigmatized as an inordinate drain on the workplace caused by female employees, and that employers could not evade leave obligations simply by hiring men. Unlike the statutes at issue in City of Boerne, Kimel, and Garrett, which applied broadly to every aspect of state employers' operations, the FMLA is narrowly targeted at the fault line between work and family--precisely where sex-based overgeneralization has been and remains strongest--and affects only one aspect of the employment relationship. Also significant are the many other limitations that Congress placed on the FMLA's scope. For example, the FMLA requires only unpaid leave; applies only to employees who have worked for the employer for at least one year and provided 1,250 hours of service within the last 12 months; and does not apply to employees in high-ranking or sensitive positions, including state elected officials, their staffs, and appointed policymakers.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Rehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer

Concurrence: Souter, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer

Concurrence: Stevens

Dissent: Scalia

Dissent: Kennedy, joined by Scalia, Thomas