WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that states cannot be sued for money damages for violating a key provision of a federal law that gives workers time off for a serious medical condition, a decision that could affect millions of state employees.
The high court by a 5-4 vote ruled that lawsuits against states under the law were barred by state sovereign immunity, rejecting state worker claims for money damages for violations of a provision of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.
At issue was the law's "self-care" provision that allows a worker to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to recover from a serious illness or medical condition. There are about 5 million state workers in the nation.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that states can be sued for money damages under another provision of the law that allows employees to take time off to care for a seriously ill family member.
But the high court's conservative majority ruled that the self-care provision was different. It said it agreed with every federal appeals court to have addressed the issue.
The Supreme Court's ruling was a defeat for a state employee, Daniel Coleman, who worked for the Administrative Office of the Courts for the Maryland judiciary.
He sued for money damages, claiming he was wrongly fired for trying to take a 10-day medical leave in 2007 to deal with his hypertension and diabetes.
A federal judge and an appeals court dismissed Coleman's lawsuit, ruling the Constitution's 11th Amendment on state sovereign immunity barred it.
Coleman's attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court and argued the law represented a valid exercise of congressional power under the 14th Amendment, nullifying the usual sovereign immunity the states enjoy from lawsuits for money damages.
Maryland acknowledged that it cannot violate the law. But it argued that it was constitutionally protected from such lawsuits seeking money damages and that employees such as Coleman could instead seek a court order reinstating them to their job.
In the court's main opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled for the state, and the court's other conservatives either joined his opinion or concurred in the outcome.
The court's four liberals dissented.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the rare step of reading part of her dissent from the bench and said the law was a proper exercise of Congress' power to remedy the problem of workplace discrimination.
"Congress adopted leave policies from which all could benefit," she said. "The inequality Congress sought to overcome seems to me well within the national legislature's authority to address."
Women's rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the ruling.
"Today's decision leaves women more vulnerable to sex discrimination and elevates states' rights over a woman's right to be free from unconstitutional sex discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination," said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director.
The Supreme Court case is Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, No. 10-1016.
Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Lisa Shumaker