Sovereign Immunity Bars Suits Against States Under FMLA Self-care Provision: Supreme Court

In Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, the US Supreme Court found that states have sovereign immunity against suits for damages by their employees under the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). A plurality of the Court held that the self-care provision was not enacted by Congress to address any pattern of gender-based discrimination and therefore could not be read to abrogate the state's immunity from a suit for damages.

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On March 20, 2012, the US Supreme Court held that sovereign immunity bars suits for damages against state employers under the FMLA's self-care provision, which allows employees to take leave for their own serious health condition ...show full speedread

On March 20, 2012, the US Supreme Court held that sovereign immunity bars suits for damages against state employers under the FMLA's self-care provision, which allows employees to take leave for their own serious health condition. In Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, a plurality of the Court held that because Congress found no evidence of gender-based discrimination in state sick-leave policies, it could not subject states, as sovereigns, to suits for damages for violations of the FMLA's self-care provision. The plurality reaffirmed that to abrogate state sovereign immunity from suits for damages under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress must:

  • Identify conduct that violates the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive provisions.

  • Tailor a remedy "congruent and proportional" to those violations.

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Key Litigated Issue

On March 20, 2012, the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, affirming the lower courts' dismissal of the case on sovereign immunity grounds. The key litigated issue was whether state employers are immune from suits for damages under the self-care provision of the FMLA.

 

Background

Plaintiff Daniel Coleman requested sick leave from his employer, the Court of Appeals of Maryland. Coleman was informed, after his request, that he must resign or he would be terminated. Coleman sued his employer, alleging that it violated the FMLA by failing to allow him to take FMLA leave for his own health condition.

The District Court of Maryland dismissed the suit, holding that the Court of Appeals of Maryland was a sovereign immune from a suit for damages. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Coleman appealed to the US Supreme Court.

 

Outcome

In a 5-4 plurality decision, the Court affirmed the lower courts' dismissal, holding that states could not be sued for damages under the FMLA self-care provision, which allows employees to take leave for up to 12 weeks to care for their own serious health condition (www.practicallaw.com/7-504-3072) (for more information, see Practice Note, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Basics (www.practicallaw.com/9-505-1339) and 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1) (2010)). The plurality found that Congress could not subject states to suits for damages under the self-care provision because the provision was not linked to an identified pattern of gender-based discrimination by states.

In its decision, the plurality reviewed the Court's decision in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, which held that states can be sued for damages under the family-care provision of the FMLA (538 U.S. 721 (2003)). As the plurality explained, under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress may abrogate states' sovereign immunity if it:

  • Identifies conduct that violates the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive provisions.

  • Tailors a remedy "congruent and proportional" to those violations.

In Hibbs, the Court discussed evidence of gender-based discrimination in state family-leave policies, as well as biased implementation of gender-neutral family-leave policies by state employers. Because of this evidence of discrimination, liability under the family-care provision of the FMLA was found to be an appropriate remedy to address these violations by public employers.

Plaintiff Coleman argued that the self-care provision should be analyzed like the family-care provision because it:

  • Addresses sex discrimination and stereotyping.

  • Is a necessary supplement to the family-care provision of the FMLA.

  • Eases a burden on single parents, which implicates gender-based discrimination because many single parents are women.

However, unlike in Hibbs, the plurality found that the FMLA's self-care provision was not enacted to correct gender-based discrimination in state sick-leave policies for an employee's own serious health condition. Without a demonstrated pattern of discrimination, the plurality held that Congress could not subject states to suits for damages under the self-care provision of the FMLA.

 

Practical Implications

The plurality's opinion clarifies that state employers have sovereign immunity against suits for damages by their employees under the FMLA's self-care provision. However, Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent that:

  • The plurality's opinion does not authorize state employers to violate the FMLA's self-care provision.

  • A state employee may seek injunctive relief against the responsible state official if he is wrongly denied FMLA self-care leave.

  • If a state employer violates the FMLA's self-care provision, the DOL can sue the state and seek monetary relief on behalf of the aggrieved employee.

In addition, private employers that contract with state governments should understand that they may be sued for monetary damages for violations of the FMLA's self-care provision, and should ensure their policies and practices comply with the FMLA.

For more information about the FMLA, see:

 

Court Documents

 
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