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Supreme Court Rules State Employees May Not Bring Suit for Violations of FMLA "Self-Care" Provision

Apr 12, 2012

By: Carly Osadetz

On March 20, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland that state employees may not file suit against their state entity employers, for violations of the "self-care" provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). The "self-care" provision of the FMLA permits employees, including state employees, to take 12 weeks of leave for the employee's own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee's ability to perform at work.

In this case, Petitioner Daniel Coleman sued his employer, the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland, an entity of the State of Maryland, when they threatened to terminate his employment after he requested sick leave under the "self-care" provision of the FMLA. However, the Court held that suits against the States under this provision are barred by sovereign immunity.

The Court distinguished its holding in Nevada v. Hibbs , where the Court held that employees could sue the States for violations of the "family-care" provision of the FMLA. In Hibbs , the Court's decision rested on the fact that the "family-care" provision of the FMLA was primarily enacted to remedy gender discrimination. Congress may abrogate the states' immunity through the use of Section 5 of the 14 th Amendment if there is "a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end." Here, the Supreme Court found that there was no evidence that the "self-care" provision of the FMLA was necessary to the "family-care" provision or that it reduced employer gender discrimination. Therefore, the Court held that the attempt to abrogate sovereign immunity under the "self-care" provision was unconstitutional.

The Court did not overturn its decision in Hibbs, and public employers must still provide leave under the "family-care" provisions of the FMLA. This decision does not affect the application of any provision of the FMLA to employees of private entities.

Public employers with questions may contact Carly Osadetz at (313) 965-8276, cosadetz@clarkhill.com , or any of Clark Hill's Municipal and Education or Labor and Employment Law attorneys.