ACLU Defends Father's Right to Care for First-Born Daughter

June 22, 1999 12:00 am

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GREENWOOD, SC — The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Public Safety for firing a nine-year police veteran who asserted his right to take parental leave after the birth of his first daughter.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Lance Corporal David O. Roberts, a former state trooper with the South Carolina Highway Patrol, by the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of South Carolina.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, officials refused to grant Roberts parental leave because of his gender and then fired him in retaliation for attempting to exercise his rights. The Public Safety Department’s actions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the complaint said.

“It is deeply ironic that a state trooper, whose job it is to protect the community and uphold the law, is being punished for trying to exercise his own legal rights,” said Sara Mandelbaum, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project attorney representing Roberts.

In countering Roberts’ claim, state attorneys have called the entire law into question, arguing that the Family and Medical Leave Act is a constitutionally unauthorized attempt by Congress to mandate the provision of benefits.

This is not the first case of its kind. In a remarkably similar case brought by the ACLU, a jury awarded a Maryland state trooper $375,000 in February 1999 for emotional damages in the first-ever sex discrimination verdict in conjunction with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

“Some male-dominated institutions like the South Carolina Highway Patrol may have a problem with the concept, but the FMLA was enacted expressly to strengthen the family unit and to encourage men to share in child care and other nurturing duties traditionally performed by women,” Mandelbaum said. “We expect to make similar arguments here in South Carolina, and we are prepared to take it to the Supreme Court if necessary.”

Roberts said he applied for leave both because his wife had not been working long enough to qualify for paid leave and so that she would have a chance to advance in her new job. He and his wife also wanted to avoid putting their child into day care for as long as possible.

“This was the birth of my first little girl and I wanted to be there,” said Roberts. “Looking after a newborn is not a vacation and I wanted to pull my fair share and give my wife the opportunity to get back to her new job and continue her career as well.”

But he soon found himself subject to intense criticism and scrutiny on the job. Summoned to the office of his Commander, Captain David Williams, Roberts was asked if he understood the meaning of the word “motherhood” — implying that it was inappropriate for a man to take parental leave.

Saying that Roberts’ leave request made the troopers look bad, Williams told him that “the man is the breadwinner and it is the man’s responsibility to work, not to stay home with the kids.” Williams said that he “had to eat ‘beanie weenies’ at one point to make ends meet” but that his wife still stayed at home to raise their children.

Feeling increased pressure from his supervisors and worried about losing his job, on December 30, 1996, Roberts retracted his request for FMLA leave. He and his wife — who went back to work after 1 month of unpaid leave — were forced to cobble together child care relying on friends and family and ultimately, day care.

Three months later, after receiving various letters of reprimand — despite having received no such reprimands over the past four years — Roberts was fired for “consistent failure to follow standard procedures and policies,” the ACLU’s complaint said.

“It is time the South Carolina Highway Patrol adopted family-friendly procedures and policies so fathers can help care for their newborn children,” said Steven Bates, Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina.

The case is David O. Roberts v. State of South Carolina, Civil Action No. 98-2217, filed in United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, Greenwood Division.

Roberts is being represented by Mandelbaum from the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Andy Brumme’ from the ACLU of South Carolina, and cooperating attorneys John A. O’Leary and Everett J. Mercer of Columbia, South Carolina, who initially filed the case in July, 1998.

The ACLU’s brief in the case can be found online at:
/court/robertsvcarolina_complaint.html

A timeline of events in the case is available online at:
/news/1999/n062299t.html

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