Supreme Court Finds States Immune from FMLA Self-Care Provision Lawsuits

On March 20, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland that states are immune from lawsuits under the self-care provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In plain English: state employees cannot sue their employers, even when those employers violate one of the core provisions of the FMLA.

The lawsuit behind the ruling was begun by Daniel Coleman, a Maryland state employee who was fired in 2007. From law firm Fisher & Phillips:

“Daniel Coleman worked for the Maryland Court of Appeals as executive director of procurement and contract administration until his termination in August 2007. Coleman had a generally positive employment history with Maryland, but was forced to resign or be terminated the day after he requested sick leave. Coleman sued the Maryland Court of Appeals for, among other things, firing him for requesting sick leave.”

But the underlying issue was not whether Coleman should have been fired for his request, but rather whether or not he could sue the state of Maryland for damages. Law firm Ford & Harrison:

“Generally, states are immune from lawsuits for damages unless they waive this immunity.  Congress can, however, abrogate states’ immunity from suit pursuant to its powers under §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment… Previously, the Supreme Court, in Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, held that states could be sued for damages for violations of the family-care provisions of the FMLA.  The Court reached this decision in Hibbs because it found that states had family leave policies that differentiated on the basis of sex and administered neutral family leave policies in ways that discriminated on the basis of sex.

In its ruling, the Court determined that the self-care provision of the FMLA did not create the same discrimination as did the family-care provision. Ford & Harrison again:

“In Coleman the Court distinguished Hibbs because ‘what the family-care provisions have to support them, the self-care provision lacks, namely evidence of a pattern of state constitutional violations accompanied by a remedy drawn in narrow terms to address or prevent those violations.’  The Court held that when the FMLA was enacted, evidence did not suggest that states had facially discriminatory self-care leave policies or that they administered neutral self-care leave policies in a discriminatory way.  Thus, without widespread evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave, the Court found it apparent that the Congressional purpose in enacting the self-care provision was ‘unrelated to these supposed wrongs.’”

The ruling is good news for state employers, says Fisher & Phillips:

‘If you are a public employer in a state that has not voluntarily relinquished its sovereign immunity with respect to the FMLA, this decision insulates your organization from suits by employees alleging violations of the self-care provision of the Act. This does not mean that your employees have lost all protection under the FMLA. The family-care provision of the FMLA still applies because of the 2003 Hibbs decision.”

Nevertheless, they continue, employers should use caution when applying FMLA policies:

“Although it is now clear that state employees will not be allowed to sue for alleged violations of the FMLA under the self-care provision, it would be prudent for state employers to enforce your medical leave policies evenhandedly. Failing to do so could subject you to liability under other employment laws.”

And, reminds Ford & Harrison, “[t]he decision does not apply to private-sector employers, who are still subject to suits for damages for violation of the FMLA’s self-care provision.”

Read the full updates:

Supreme Court holds that States Cannot Be Sued for Damages under FMLA’s Self-Care Provision (Ford & Harrison LLP)

Supreme Court Rules “Self-Care” Provision of FMLA Does Not Allow State Employees to Sue States (Fisher & Phillips LLP)

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See also: U.S. Supreme Court Rules That State Employees Cannot Sue under “Self-Care” Provisions of the FMLA (Franczek Radelet P.C.)

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