January 17 2012
Making Taxpayers Pay
Carrie L. Lukas
The Supreme Court recently heard testimony about how the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to state employees, specifically can they sue for damages when they are wrongly denied their FMLA benefits?
In this case, a Maryland state employee who was fired for trying to take a 10 day medical leave related to his diabetes is suing the state for $1.1 million. While court agree that state governments are subject to FMLA, and therefore in cases like this, employees may be eligible for reinstatement and other remedies, the question is whether they should also be able to sue for damages. The plaintiff argues that without the threat of damages, government officials will have little incentive to comply with the law.
The legal arguments aside, it's hard to see how the threat of such a payout really changes the incentives of those in the human resource department in the government. It's not their money, and they have no meaningful concern that an award will put the company, in this case the government, out of business, jeopardizing their job. If juries are allowed to award aggrieved employees millions for pain and suffering or whatever it is related to wrongful termination or other treatment, it's taxpayers who will foot the bill.
I've written before about how our bizarre legal system and the fear of frivolous lawsuits is damaging the United States culturally as well as economically. This is another example of how the concept of “justice” seems increasingly left out of the justice system.
Perhaps this state employee was wrongfully terminated. It seems hard to imagine – state employees generally have incredible job security and bureaucracies are slow to fire even poorly performing employees – but let's assume that this was a dutiful employee who wasn't abusing FMLA (note, however, there's evidence that FMLA abuse in general appears pretty common). Is $1.1 million in damages really justified?
Such numbers hardly raise eyebrows anymore. Americans are sadly accustomed to stories of customers demanding millions for some alleged ill-treatment from one big company or another. We should be concerned though when the trial lawyers can start eying taxpayers as another source of jackpot jury cash—our already bankrupt governments may soon become even more bankrupt. Perhaps more importantly, it seems another big step in the wrong direction away from justice and common sense.