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The Supreme Court Discovers Gender

Williams Hibbs tried to sue his employer, the state of Nevada, for damages, claiming it violated the FMLA in denying him family leave to care for his wife. Nevada claimed that, in enacting the FMLA and giving employees the right to sue states as employers, Congress violated Nevada’s sovereign immunity guaranteed by the Eleventh Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hibbs, pointing out that Congress’ purpose in passing the gender-neutral FMLA (both male and female employees are eligible for family leave), was to recognize women’s right to equal opportunity in the work force. This goal was incompatible with policies and practices that forced them into primary caregiver roles while still in the work force. The Court recognized FMLA as a tool to encourage men to take family leave. By husbands taking more responsibility for domestic work, their wives could have more time to devote to their careers. The result would be a more equitable balance. And Congress had the power to promote equal protection by the states under the Foureenth Amendment which, in this case, superseded the Eleventh Amendment:

By creating an across-the-board, routine employment benefit for all eligible employees, Congress sought to ensure that family-care leave would no longer by stigmatized as an inordinate drain on the workplace caused by female employees, and that employers could not evade leave obligations simply by hiring men. By setting a minimum standard of family leave for all eligible employees, irrespective of gender, the FMLA attacks the formerly state-sanctioned stereotype that only women are responsible for family caregiving, thereby reducing employers’ incentives to engage in discrimination by basing hiring and promotion decisions on stereotypes. (Chief Justice Rehnquist, Joined by Justices O’Connor, Breyer, Ginsburg, Stevens, and Souter, Nevada Department of Human Resources et al. v. Hibbs et. al., 538 US-(slipopinion) p. 15 2003).