ACLU Wins $375,000 Jury Award in Case Of Dad Denied Leave to Care for First-Born Child

February 3, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, February 3, 1999

breaking case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, a Maryland jury has awarded a state trooper $375,000 for emotional damages in the first-ever sex discrimination verdict in conjunction with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

The ACLU of Maryland and the ACLU National Women’s Rights Project sued the Maryland State Police in 1995 on Trooper 1st Class Kevin Knussman’s behalf, saying that the 22-year police veteran was denied parental leave to care for his newborn daughter because of his gender. The ACLU argued that the Maryland police violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and the medical leave act.

“We are thrilled for the Knussman family and very proud of our client,” said Deborah A. Jeon, managing attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “State Trooper Kevin Knussman truly showed himself to be one of ‘Maryland’s finest’ by standing up for the Constitution through a long and difficult legal fight.”

In anticipation of the birth of his first child, Knussman, now 41, originally sought leave in 1994 under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave upon birth of a child. When his request was denied and his wife became ill, Knussman again sought family leave under a Maryland law that provides for 30 days of paid leave to state employees who are “primary care providers” for a newborn or adopted child.

But the Maryland State Police denied both his requests, saying that only women were eligible for leave under the law. In court papers, the ACLU said a female personnel supervisor told Knussman, “God decided only women can give birth,” and “unless your wife is in a coma or dead,” and “because only women have the capacity to breast feed a baby,” he could not be considered the primary care provider.

The ACLU successfully argued that both the federal and state laws are gender-neutral and that the state had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by denying Knussman primary care-giver status.

“This is the first family medical leave case that directly challenged the denial of rights to a father,” said Sara Mandelbaum, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project attorney representing Knussman. “In passing the Family Medical Leave Act, Congress sought to encourage men to share in child care duties that many working women took on alone. Some male-dominated institutions like the Maryland State Police may have a problem with this concept, but the court has shown it is the law of the land.”

Mandelbaum said that the case reflected a wider problem in the American workforce, noting that a large percentage of both men and women are unaware of their leave rights as guaranteed under the medical leave act.

While the men who know about their rights are taking advantage of their leave opportunities, a recent national survey indicates that more than 40 percent of both men and women were unaware of their leave rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The survey, conducted for the National Partnership for Women & Families, also revealed that 30 percent of men and women did not know if their spouses were guaranteed leave under the law.

“The jury in this case has heeded President Clinton’s call to put teeth in the Family and Medical Leave Act,” said Robin Cockey, an ACLU volunteer attorney who argued the case in 1995 and in the jury trial.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton profiled Knussman’s case in her 1995 book, It Takes A Village, and Knussman testified before a Congressional Committee on Family and Medical Leave in 1995 about his efforts to claim benefits. The Knussman family also joined President Clinton on his weekly radio show in 1995 to celebrate the Act’s second anniversary.

“I’d like to be able to go back to work and hold my head high and serve the citizens of Maryland,” Knussman said upon learning of the jury’s verdict.

Kevin Knussman was represented by ACLU of Maryland attorney Deborah A. Jeon, volunteer attorney Robin Cockey from Cockey, Brennan and Maloney in Baltimore, and by ACLU Women’s Rights Project attorney Sara Mandelbaum. The case is Knussman v. State of Maryland, No. B-95-1255.

Note to Editors and Reporters: The legal complaint and high-resolution photos of Knussman and his family — including an official White House photo of the President and the Knussman baby — can be downloaded from the ACLU website at http://archive.aclu.org
Knussman family, photo courtesy Kevin Knussman (thumbnail of this photo seen on home page)
Riley Paige Knussman with President Clinton, White House Photo
Kevin and Kimberly Knussman with Riley Paige and President Clinton, White House Photo

Knussman v. Maryland State Police
ACLU Fact Sheet on Working Families and the FMLA

Acting to fight unemployment, neutralize workplace discrimination practices that traditionally burdened women, and provide a safety net for families in times of need, Congress signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law in 1993.

The FMLA is critical to families across America. The number of women working outside the home has dramatically increased in recent decades, requiring Americans to balance professional obligations with family responsibilities. Before 1993, many employers did not provide employees with job security during periods of family and medical leave.

However, while studies reveal that a large number of working Americans need to take time off to care for their families at some point in their careers, a large percentage of both men and women are unaware of their leave rights under the FMLA or erroneously believe that it does not protect them.

The Facts:

  • FMLA requires all employers with 50 or more employees to provide permanent employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave;
  • Any qualifying employee must be given leave if the employee gives birth to, fathers, adopts or accepts a child into foster care; cares for a seriously ill spouse, son daughter, or parent; or develops a serious health condition that renders the employee unable to perform his or her job.
  • While earlier laws had barred employers from penalizing women either because of their gender or from the physical limitations of pregnancy, the FMLA bars employers from penalizing workers of either gender who want to take leave to spend time with a new child or to care for sick family members.

The Loopholes:

  • While the majority of employers (86.5 percent) know they are covered by the FMLA, only 58.2 percent of covered employees have ever heard of the Act, (A Workable Balance: Report to Congress on Family and Medical Leave Policies, U.S. Department of Labor, April 1996).
  • Out of 1,000 people, more than 40 percent of both men and women are unaware of their leave rights under the FMLA, (Family Matters: A National Survey of Women and Men, National Partnership for Women & Families, February 1998).
  • Thirty percent of men and women do not know if their respective spouses are guaranteed leave under the law (Family Matters: A National Survey of Women and Men, National Partnership for Women & Families, February 1998).

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