State Employee May Not Sue To Recover Damages For Violation Of FMLA’s Self-Care Provision

The United States Supreme Court recently held that an employee may not sue his or her state employer for damages for violation of the provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) that requires employers, including state employers, to grant their employees unpaid leave for self care for a serious medical condition.  (Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, (— S.Ct. —-, U.S., March 20, 2012.


Daniel Coleman (“Coleman”) requested sick leave from his employer, the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland. The Court of Appeals told Coleman he would be terminated if he did not resign from his employment.  Coleman brought a lawsuit in federal district court against the Court of Appeals, which is an entity or instrumentality of the State of Maryland (“State”) for sovereign immunity purposes.  Coleman alleged that the Court of Appeals violated the FMLA because it failed to provide him with self-care leave. 

The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the Maryland Court of Appeals was immune from Coleman’s suit for damages because the self-care provision of the FMLA does not validly abrogate the State’s immunity from suit.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.

The Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court framed the issue before it as “whether a state employee is allowed to recover damages from the state entity that employs him by invoking one of the provisions of a federal statute that, in express terms, seeks to abrogate the States’ immunity from suits for damages.”  The specific statutory provision at issue is the FMLA’s requirement that employers, including state employers, must grant their employees unpaid leave for self care for serious medical conditions as long as the other statutory requirements are met, such as the restriction on the maximum amount of leave that an employee may take.  The Supreme Court held that lawsuits for damages under the self-care provision of the FMLA are barred because States have immunity as sovereign entities within the federal system. 

Eligible employees are entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year pursuant to the FMLA.  Employees may take leave (A) for the birth of a daughter or son, (B) for the adoption or foster care-placement of a child, (C) to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition, and (D) for “the employee’s own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee’s ability to perform at work.”  The FMLA creates a private right of action for an employee to seek equitable relief or damages against any employer, including a public agency.

Provisions (A), (B), and (C) are known as the “family-care provisions.”  The Supreme Court previously held in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721 (2003), that Congress could subject States to lawsuits for violation of provision (C).  The Supreme Court concluded that its previous holding in Hibbs “rested on evidence that States had family-leave policies that differentiated on the basis of sex and that States administered even neutral family-leave policies in ways that discriminated on the basis of sex.”  The self-care provision found in (D) was not at issue in Hibbs

Under the federal system, States are immune from lawsuits for damages unless they elect to waive that defense.  Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment allows Congress to abrogate the States’ immunity from suit.  Legislation enacted under section 5 “must be targeted at ‘conduct transgressing the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive provisions.’”  The requirement that state employers give employees family-care leave addresses the problem of sex-based discrimination.  There is no such implication in regard to the self-care provision as this provision does not address sex discrimination.

In order to subject States to damages under section 5, there has to be more than a theory as to why abrogation would aid in or advance a stated congressional purpose.  To abrogate immunity under section 5, Congress is required to “identify a pattern of constitutional violations and tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations.”  Congress failed to meet these requirements when it allowed employees to bring lawsuits against States for violations of the self-care provision of the FMLA.

The Supreme Court held that Coleman’s lawsuit against the Court of Appeals of Maryland for its alleged violation of the self-care provision of the FMLA was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.


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