Employment Law Suit For Damages Under FMLA For Violations of Family Care Provisions

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On March 20, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court severely limited the reach of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by eliminating state employees’ ability to sue for damages for violations of the FMLA’s self-care provision. 

In Coleman, the plaintiff, who was an employee of the Court of Appeals of the state of Maryland, requested sick leave and was informed that he would be terminated if he did not resign.  Ultimately he sued and his case was dismissed on the basis that Maryland’s Court of Appeals, an entity of a sovereign state, was immune from the suit for damages. Both the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision. 

In so doing, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court found that, unlike the law’s family care provision, the self-care provision of the FMLA was not directed at an identified pattern of gender-based discrimination. Accordingly, the self-care provision was not congruent and proportional to any pattern of sex-based discrimination on the part of states.

The Coleman decision protects only state employers and not municipal entities, which do not enjoy sovereign immunity nor does it invalidate the self-care provision of the FMLA as it applies to state employers.  Instead, it simply bars employees from seeking money damages for violations.  Employees may seek injunctive relief against a responsible state official for violation of the FMLA’s self-care provision.  Thus, states must continue to comply with all aspects of the FMLA.

Moreover, the Coleman decision does not overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721 (2003), in which it held that states can be sued for damages for violating the FMLA’s family care provisions.  The holding was based 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. 

Thus, if a state employee seeks the protections of the FMLA in order to provide care for a qualifying family member which results in a violation of the FMLA, he or she may sue the state and seek damages despite the holding in Coleman.