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Supreme Court takes Maryland FMLA case

The Supreme Court will use a lawsuit by a former Maryland court employee to determine if states can be sued for violating the self-care provision of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Daniel Coleman, once the executive director of procurement and contract administration at the Administrative Office of the Courts in Annapolis, claimed he was illegally fired in August 2007 for taking sick leave.

But a federal judge in Baltimore found the state was immune from suit, a decision the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed last November.

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to review the case.

In 2003, the high court held that the FMLA’s family-care provisions apply to state employers. Coleman’s attorneys, Michael L. Foreman and Edward Smith Jr., believe the same rule should apply to the self-care provisions.

However, the 2003 case, Nevada DHR v. Hibbs, did not address the law’s self-care provisions. In the years since Hibbs, six federal circuits have found that the self-care provisions apply only to private employers.

“This appearance of unanimity, however, masks the closeness and importance of the issue,” Coleman’s lawyers argue, since the leading cases have recognized that it is “subject to differing interpretations.”

“This Court should grant certiorari to definitively resolve the question,” Foreman and Smith successfully argued.

Foreman, who directs the civil rights appellate clinic at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law, is counsel of record at the high court. Smith, who was Coleman’s trial attorney, is a Baltimore solo practitioner. Neither lawyer returned telephone messages seeking comment Monday afternoon.

Deputy Maryland Solicitor General William F. Brockman, the state’s counsel of record in the case, said Monday that he “certainly would have preferred for the case to be over” rather than have the Supreme Court review a decision in favor of the state.

“We are confident that whatever way the Supreme Court comes out, our clients will win on the merits,” he added.

In a brief to the Supreme Court, Brockman argued that Congress, in FMLA’s self-care provision, was targeting only the failure of the private sector to give its workers time off to care for themselves.

The 4th Circuit correctly “found that the self-care provision was not intended to address gender discrimination and that there was no record of discrimination in public employers’ practices regarding medical leave” when FMLA was enacted, Brockman wrote.

In his lawsuit, Coleman claims he sent a letter to State Court Administrator Frank V. Broccolina, requesting sick leave for a documented medical condition. Broccolina denied the request and told Coleman he could either resign or be terminated, according to the lawsuit.

Coleman was later fired, the lawsuit claims.

Coleman, who is black, also claimed he had been “treated differently as a result of his race” in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Right Act.

U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg dismissed the Title VII claim, saying Coleman’s complaint failed to allege facts that would indicate an unlawful act occurred. The 4th Circuit affirmed, calling the complaint “conclusory.”

The Title VII issue is not before the high court.

Coleman sought $1.1 million in compensation from the state, including $500,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages. He also sought reinstatement.

The Maryland Judiciary and Broccolina have denied Coleman’s allegations. Judiciary spokeswoman Angelita Plemmer declined to comment on the case Monday.

The high court is expected to hear Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals et al., No. 10-1016 during the term that begins in October.