Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Supreme Court to decide if states are immune from FMLA’s self-care provisions

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday regarding a fired Maryland court employee’s contention that states can be sued for violating the self-care provision of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Daniel Coleman

Daniel Coleman, once the executive director of procurement and contract administration at the Administrative Office of the Courts in Annapolis, claims in a $1 million lawsuit that he was illegally fired in August 2007 for taking sick leave.

But a federal judge in Baltimore found the state was immune from the suit, a decision the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in November 2010.

“I was devastated, to say the least,” Coleman said of his firing by an agency he believed stood for justice. “I felt helpless and deflated.”

The Maryland Judiciary and State Court Administrator Frank V. Broccolina, defendants in the lawsuit, have denied Coleman’s allegation of wrongful termination. However, the dispute before the Supreme Court is over governmental immunity.

The issue before the Supreme Court concerns the breadth of the FMLA, a 1993 law designed to provide time off for workers to tend to the health care needs of a family member or themselves.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the family-care provisions apply to state governments, but has never weighed in on the section providing protections for self-care.

As the 4th Circuit has pointed out, Congress passed the law in large part to protect working women, who were more often the family caregivers and thus more susceptible to having to take time off to care for a loved one than their male colleagues, the 4th circuit stated.

Affirming the ruling against Coleman, the 4th Circuit found the self-care provision could not apply to state employees because there was no record of gender discrimination by state agencies in the granting of leave to their employees to care for themselves when Congress enacted the FMLA.

Thus, Congress lacked valid basis under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause to trump the states’ constitutional immunity from being sued, the 4th Circuit said.

But attorney Michael L. Foreman, who will argue Coleman’s case before the high court, said the FMLA self-care provision is firmly rooted in the Equal Protection Clause, as Congress enacted the law “to provide true equality for women’s participation in the workplace.”

Since the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Nevada DHR v. Hibbs, at least six federal circuits — including the 4th Circuit, which governs Maryland — have said the self-care provisions apply only to private employers. No federal circuit court has held otherwise.

Foreman, in outlining his high-court argument, said the same rule should apply to the self-care provision because it is part of the same legislation Congress passed to give workers time off for their own health needs without fear of reprisal.

“If you cannot take leave to take care of yourself, the family leave becomes meaningless,” said Foreman, who directs the civil rights appellate clinic at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law.

Deputy Maryland Attorney General John B. Howard Jr., who will be arguing for the state, said in his brief to the high court that Congress had no legal basis for permitting states to be sued under FMLA’s self-care provision.

“The legislative history demonstrates that, unlike the family-care provision reviewed in Hibbs, the self-care provision was not enacted in response to a record of gender discrimination by states, but was instead motivated by economic policy objectives that are distinct from the substantive rights guaranteed by Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Howard wrote, referring to the Equal Protection Clause. “Consequently, Congress has not validly abrogated the states’ sovereign immunity from damages based on the self-care provision.”

Howard said Thursday that he has participated in eight moot courts in preparation for his first argument before the nation’s highest court, most recently at a session arranged by the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington, D.C. He added that he “very much” appreciates that Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler opted not to argue the case himself.

“For a lawyer, it’s a dream come true to once in your life argue before the Supreme Court,” Howard said.

The Coleman case has attracted national attention. Groups representing women and seniors have submitted a brief to the high court in support of Foreman’s broad interpretation of the FMLA, while 26 states, led by Texas, have urged the justices to hold the line with the 4th Circuit and other appellate courts.

Judith L. Lichtman, senior adviser to the National Partnership for Women & Families, said the court should rule for Coleman and ensure that state workers can exercise the same FMLA right as private-sector employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves. The partnership submitted a friend of the court brief that was joined by the National Women’s Law Center, the National Senior Citizens Law Center and AARP.

The Texas brief said Congress lacked the authority to apply the self-care provision to state employment because most state governments were already providing personal leave for employees when the federal law was enacted.

In his lawsuit, Coleman claims he sent a letter to Broccolina, the court administrator, requesting sick leave for a severe and documented medical condition related to hypertension and diabetes.

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 that part of the complaint “conclusory.”

The Title VII issue is not before the high court.

Coleman seeks $1.1 million in compensation from the state, including $500,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages.

The Supreme Court is expected to render its decision in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals et al., No. 10-1016, by this summer.