Over the prior decade, Chief Justice Rehnquist had consistently declared unconstitutional federal waivers of state sovereign immunity. But in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs (2003) he found that Congress could abrogate a state’s sovereign immunity to remedy violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law allowed “eligible employees to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave annually.” Employers that denied that benefit — including state government agencies — could be sued in federal court for damages. In this case, William Hibbs sued the Nevada Department of Human Resources for violating FMLA.
By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court found that FMLA’s waiver of sovereign immunity was constitutional.