Employment and Labor

Sovereign Immunity Bars Suits For Damages Against States Under The FMLA’s Self-Care Provision

Sovereign Immunity Bars Suits For Damages Against States Under The FMLA’s Self-Care Provision

On March 20, 2012, the United States Supreme Court held in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland,[1] that lawsuits for money damages against States under the self-care provision of the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”),[2] are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In other words, state employees can no longer sue their employer for money damages for violations of the FMLA’s self-care provision. Private employers, however, may still be sued.

The facts in Coleman are fairly simple. Petitioner Daniel Coleman was an employee of the Court of Appeals for the State of Maryland. When Coleman asked for sick leave, he was told that he could resign or be fired. Coleman sued his employer in federal court, alleging, among other things, that the Court of Appeals for the State of Maryland violated the FMLA’s self-care provision by failing to provide him with self-care leave.

Under the FMLA’s self-care provision, an eligible employee is entitled to take up to twelve work weeks of unpaid leave per year for the employee’s own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee’s ability to perform at work.[3]

Although the FMLA expressly states that eligible employees who are denied self-care can sue their employer for money damages, the Coleman Court held that Congress’ attempt to deny States sovereign immunity under the self-care provision was an invalid exercise of congressional power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. As a rule, to subject a state to money damages legislation enacted under section 5 must be targeted at conduct violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive provisions, and must be tailored to fit the nature of the injury to be prevented (i.e., Congress cannot use a sledgehammer to crack a nut). The Coleman Court found that the self-care provision failed to meet this two-prong test because (1) it was not directed at an identified pattern of gender-based discrimination, and (2) it was not congruent and proportional to any pattern of sex-based discrimination on the part of States.

Accordingly, the Coleman Court concluded its opinion by stating: “To abrogate the States’ immunity from suits for damages under section 5, Congress must identify a pattern of constitutional violations and tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations. It failed to do so when it allowed employees to sue States for violations of the FMLA’s self-care provision.”

[1] 132 S. Ct. 1327 (2012)

[2] 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.

[3] 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D).