With a little assistance from the U.S. Supreme Court, the State of Maryland avoided potential FMLA liability yesterday in Coleman v. State of Maryland Court of Appeals when the Supremes held that the Family and Medical Leave Act does not allow lawsuits against states by their employees when the suit deals with the "self-care" provisions of the FMLA. Consequently, Maryland's victory is a win for all states and their subdivisions.
Plaintiff Daniel Coleman worked for the Maryland Court of Appeals. A good employee by all accounts, Coleman requested FMLA leave as a result of his own alleged serious health condition. Instead of providing leave, however, the Court of Appeals fired him. Not surprisingly, Coleman sued his employer.
Maryland asked the trial court to dismiss Coleman's lawsuit because it was barred by Maryland's sovereign immunity. What is sovereign immunity? It is a legal privilege under which federal, state and local governments cannot be sued unless they agree to be sued. (Wouldn't that be a neat trick for the rest of us private citizens to invoke, too?) In order to work around the privilege of sovereign immunity and allow private lawsuits against state entities, Congress has to show that the self-care provision of the FMLA remedies a pattern of gender-based discrimination (or some other form of legally cognizable discrimination) in states' sick leave policies. Here, Maryland argued that the self-care provision of the FMLA was passed pursuant to the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which cannot be used to bypass the states' sovereign immunity.
The trial court and appellate court agreed. And so did the Supreme Court. For several of the conservative justices, the decision was an easy one, since there arguably is little evidence that Congress passed the self-care provisions of the FMLA to right the wrongs of gender discrimination. However, in an interesting exchange during oral argument before the high court, Justice Samuel Alito seemed concerned by the apparent unfairness of the result here -- that state employees would have no legal recourse in the event they were denied FMLA leave for self-care or terminated because of the need for leave. Ultimately, Justice Alito suggested that an employee still could seek an injunction to stop the employer from violating the FMLA, even though the employee could recover no monetary damages.
Insights for Employers
Keep in mind that this decision only affects employees of the states and their subdivisions. Therefore, public employers cannot to be sued under the "self-care" provision of the FMLA (so long as they have not voluntarily ceded their sovereign immunity with respect to the FMLA). Other forms of FMLA leave (e.g., caring for a family member), however, still remain protected.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether states can be sued under the FMLA for "bonding" leave and similar forms of FMLA leave. Thus, public employers should be cautious when seeking to deny FMLA leave for reasons other than self-care.
Similarly, it is vital for employers -- public and private alike -- to enforce sick leave and FMLA policies consistently to avoid claims of discrimination. Failing to do so could subject you to liability under other federal, state or local employment laws.