On March 20, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an important decision regarding the applicability of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) to state governments.

As most employers know, the FMLA allows employees, who meet certain criteria, to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for the following reasons:  (a) the care of a newborn child; (b) the adoption or foster-care placement of a child; (c) the care of a spouse, child, or parent who suffers from a serious health condition (“family-care” leave); and (d) the employee’s own serious health condition when the condition affects the employee’s ability to work (“self-care” leave).  Of course, the FMLA allows employees to sue employers who fail to provide the required leave.

In Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, Daniel Coleman was employed by the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland, which is a state agency.  Coleman requested sick leave (“self-care leave” from his employer.  In response, his employer (wisely or otherwise) told him that he would be terminated from employment if he did not resign.

Coleman sued his employer for this decision, claiming that it violated his entitlement to leave under the FMLA, but the federal court where he sued dismissed the suit on sovereign immunity grounds – the theory where States, as sovereign entities of government, are immune from suits for damages unless they elect on their own to waive that defense.  Congress, of course, may also make that decision for the states when it enacts legislation.  That authority comes under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.  When doing this, however, Congress must make its intention unmistakably clear in the statute, which it did in the FMLA by making it plain that any public agency is subject to being sued under it.  However, in order to fully abrogate the immunity of the states, Congress must also tailor its legislation to remedy or prevent conduct on the part of states that is illegal through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Under the FMLA, that means gender discrimination.

About 10 years ago, the United States Supreme Court determined that states could be held liable for their refusal to provide “family-care” leave.  Basically, the Court felt that Congress had properly abrogated the states’ immunity to remedy gender discrimination because the family-care provision was “narrowly targeted at the faultline between work and family – precisely where sex-based overgeneralization has been and remains strongest.”

In Coleman, however, the Supreme Court held that Congress could not abrogate the states’ immunity with respect to the “self-care” provision because that particular part of the FMLA was not enacted to address sex discrimination or other discrimination.  The Supreme Court noted that the vast majority of state employees received sick leave at the time the FMLA was enacted, and there was no evidence of widespread sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave among state employees.  Rather, Congress enacted the self-care provision because of a concern about the economic burdens of an employee’s sickness or unequal treatment based on that illness, not because of gender.

Coleman argued that the “self-care” provision works in tandem with the “family-care” provision to eradicate sex discrimination, but the Supreme Court rejected this argument because there were no Congressional findings to support the argument.  The Supreme Court also rejected Coleman’s theory that because the “self-care” provision helps single parents keep their jobs and because most single parents are female, it does, in fact, work to eradicate gender discrimination.

In the dissent, Justice Ginsberg, who was joined by three justices, argued that the entirety of the FMLA was directed at remedying sex discrimination.  She focused on the fact that the “self-care” provision allows women to care for themselves following pregnancy – a condition that only affects women.  She noted that it would make little sense to provide “family-care” leave for women to care for a newborn but not allow women leave to recover from delivery miscarriage, or the birth of a stillborn child.  Further, she argued because the “self-care” provision applies to both males and females, it would undermine stereotypes of women as caregivers by increasing the likelihood that both men and women would take similar amounts of FMLA leave.

Coleman makes clear that state governments are immune from suits seeking monetary damages for violation of the “self-care” provision of the FMLA.  However, that doesn’t mean employers out there should automatically start firing their employees for requesting leave to take care of their own serious health condition figuring they can get away with it.  Since Coleman doesn’t apply to private employers, the FMLA continues to be a very challenging issue for HR professionals everywhere on a daily basis.  For those folks – and for employers everywhere – we encourage you to visit this blog often, as we expect to have further useful news and information on the FMLA in the very near future.

Joseph Leonoro concentrates his practice in matters involving labor and employment law.
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