- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa woman who was fired from her position at the Polk County Clerk of Court’s office in 2004 must be given her job back, in addition to lost wages and benefits, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court agreed with a lower court that found Tina Lee’s rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act were violated by the state of Iowa.

The Polk County Clerk of Court’s Office fired Lee after she took time off to cope with anxiety. Lee sued, alleging wrongful discharge and retaliation. In 2007, a jury found in her favor and she was awarded lost earnings totaling $165,122, attorney fees and expenses. The judge also ordered that she be reinstated.

Throughout the life of the case, the arguments dealt with whether the state has sovereign immunity against being sued for money damages under FMLA.

The state Supreme Court found that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a 1908 case from Minnesota allows individuals to sue state officials who, acting on behalf of the state, violate federal law. A majority of the justices concluded the legal doctrine, known as Ex parte Young, “does not necessarily bar injunctive relief against a state official to require compliance with federal law.”

The state of Iowa argued such cases may only be pursued in federal court. The state Supreme Court justices in their ruling, however, concluded it also applies to state-court lawsuits.

The court said: “… we hold Lee is entitled to prospective injunctive relief under Ex parte Young, including an award of her weekly wages and benefits from the date the district court ordered her reinstatement on October 29, 2007.”

Paige Fiedler, Lee’s attorney, said Lee is glad to put the case behind her after nearly 10 years.

Tina herself is really, really happy to get this behind her and happy that the clerk of court was held accountable for their violations of federal law,” Fiedler said.

She said Lee returned to work March 11, 2013.

A spokesman for Attorney General Tom Miller said he had no immediate comment.

Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote a dissenting opinion, agreed to by Justice David Wiggins. It said Lee’s argument denying the state’s immunity under the Ex parte Young doctrine was not an initial claim that Lee had made in her lawsuit and came too late in the appeal process.

“It is a fundamental principle in our civil system of justice that claims and defenses cannot be raised by a party for the first time on, or after, appeal and used to justify and support the final judgment,” Cady wrote. “This principle has been ignored in this case, and our justice system has failed to deliver on one of its most basic promises - procedural fairness.”

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Associated Press writer David Pitt in Des Moines contributed to this report.

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