SCOTUS Affirms Fourth Circuit FMLA Stance in Coleman

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 21, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland this week, finding that lawsuits against states under the self-care provision of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are barred by sovereign immunity.

In addition to adding another affirmed notch to the Fourth Circuit's belt, the decision has set off rumblings about increased odds of the Court striking down the Affordable Care Act.

But before we jump to individual mandate strikes, let's discuss Coleman.

The FMLA allows an employee to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave per year for the care of a newborn child, the adoption or foster-care placement of a child, the care of an immediate family member with a serious medical condition, and the employee's own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee's ability to work. The law allows an employee to sue an employer for money damages for FMLA violations. Daniel Coleman, who worked for the Maryland Court of Appeals, did just that after the state violated the FMLA by denying him sick leave, reports The New York Times.

The district court dismissed Coleman's suit based on sovereign immunity. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the self-care provision was not directed at an identified pattern of gender-based discrimination and was not congruent and proportional to any pattern of sex-based discrimination. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision.

While the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that state employees could sue states for FMLA violations related to leave to care for family members, this week the Court ruled that employees couldn't sue state employers under the FMLA's self-care provision.

What's interesting here is that Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is considered the swing vote on this Court, wrote the majority opinion. Since Justice Kennedy indicated that Congress had overstepped its authority by canning sovereign immunity and allowing employees to sue a state employer for sick leave, some Court-watchers believe that the presumed Roberts-Scalia-Thomas-Alito block will win Kennedy's support for overturning the Affordable Care Act, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

What do you think? Is an FMLA decision just an FMLA decision, or is it an indication of a healthcare law overhaul to come?

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