Supreme Court Rules to Limit Ability of Plaintiff to Sue State Employers for FMLA Violations

The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, permits individuals to sue their employers for failing to provide time away from work under certain circumstances, including time to recover from an illness. The Supreme Court this week, in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland (10-1016), ruled that Congress did not have the authority to permit plaintiffs to sue their employers when those employers are states. “Documented discrimination against women in the general workplace is a persistent unfortunate reality, and we must assume, a still prevalent wrong. An explicit purpose of the Congress in adopting the FMLA was to improve workplace conditions for women. But states may not be subject to suits for damages based on violations of a comprehensive statute unless Congress has identified a specific pattern of constitutional violations by state employers,” wrote Justice Kennedy in the court’s plurality opinion. Additionally, for states to be sued under FMLA, “Congress must… tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations. [Congress] failed to do so when it allowed employees to sue state for violations of the FMLA’s self-care provision.” 

In Coleman, the plaintiff, employed by the state of Maryland, requested a ten day medical leave pursuant to the FMLA, and his requested was denied. The plaintiff then sued the state for damages under the FMLA, and his case was dismissed. While Maryland acknowledges that it must abide by the substantive provisions of the FMLA and provide leave to its employees, state employees may not file suits against their employers when those employers violate the FMLA.

While a majority of the court agrees, Justice Ginsburg authored a forceful dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kanag, in which she wrote that “Congress … reduced employers’ incentives to prefer men over women, advanced women’s economic opportunities, and laid the foundation for a more egalitarian relationship at home and at work.” However, Ginsburg added, “at least the damage is contained. The self-care provision remains valid Commerce Clause legislation and therefore applies, undiluted, in the private sector.” Under this decision, employees may still request a judge to reverse potential violations, and the Department of Labor may still sue a state employer and gain monetary relief for harmed employees, noted Ginsburg.

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