Supreme Court Limits State Liability For FMLA Violations

In Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, 2012 DJDAR 3627 (March 20, 2012), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision holding that states cannot be sued for damages for violations of Section (D) of the FMLA, referred to as the “self-care provision.” As the Court explained, “[a] foundational premise of the federal system is that States, as sovereigns, are immune from suits for damages save as they elect to waive that defense.” Congress “may abrogate the States’ immunity from suit pursuant to its powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.” To do so, “Congress must ‘make its intention to abrogate unmistakably clear in the language of the statute’.” In addition, the “attempt to abrogate the States’ immunity” must be a “valid exercise of congressional power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.” This requires Congress to “‘tailor’ legislation enacted under Section 5 [of the Fourteenth Amendment] ‘to remedy or prevent’ conduct transgressing the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive provisions.” In other words, before Congress can pass a law imposing monetary damages on States, the legislation must be targeted at conduct that violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court’s analysis contrasted the FMLA’s self care provision (Section (D)) with Section (C) of the FMLA, which allows for protected leave to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition. In Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721 (2003), the Court upheld Section (C) of the FMLA. The Court’s ruling 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.” Unlike Section (C) of the FMLA, the Court found there was very little evidence (if any) of discrimination by States when it comes to granting employees leave to care for their own serious health condition. Therefore, unlike FMLA Section (C), which addressed a “‘pervasive sex-role stereotype that caring for family members is women’s work,'” the FMLA’s self care provision (Section (D)) was not similarly targeted at practices by States that abrogated rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. On this basis, the Court affirmed the lower court decision that States cannot be sued for damages for violating the FLMA’s self care provision.

This decision has no impact on private (non-governmental) employers. As a result, such employers can be sued for damages for violating any provision of the FMLA, including Section (D).

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