The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled a state employee cannot sue for compensation if they are fired for taking time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. The case involved Tina Lee, who worked as a state employee in the Polk County Clerk of Court’s office.

Lee took time off in 2004 for a medical issue after filing paperwork under the Family Medical Leave Act. Lee was demoted and suspended after returning to work and was later fired when she took more days off, as her supervisor said she had abandoned her job.

Lee sued claiming wrongful termination and retaliation for exercising her rights under the federal act. A district court jury awarded her $165,000.

The state appealed the ruling, saying the issue falls under the sovereign immunity provision of the U.S. Constitution which prevents suing a state for money in its own courts for alleged violations of federal law. The Iowa Supreme Court ruling says the state did not give up its sovereign immunity just because it put information about the Family Medical Leave Act in its handbook, and it overturned the monetary award to Lee.

The High Court says Lee can still seek other relief from the state and sent the case back to the district court for further action. The Supreme Court also noted in its ruling that the U.S. Department of Labor may seek action against the state for damages or an injunction on behalf of an employee against the state for violating the self-care provisions of the act.

See the complete ruling here: Leave Act ruling PDF