On March 20, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states cannot be sued for denying workers sick leave under the FMLA.
Daniel Coleman, an African-American male, was employed with the Maryland State Court of Appeals from March 2001- August 2007 and served most recently as executive director of procurement and contract administration. Coleman requested a 10-day medical leave under the "self-care" provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") to deal with his hypertension and diabetes. Coleman claims he was forced to resign or be terminated because he was African-American and had requested sick leave.
Coleman filed a lawsuit in the District Court alleging the State violated Title VII and the FMLA. He was seeking $1.1 million in monetary damages. The State of Maryland moved to dismiss the complaint based on the grounds that Coleman failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted and that his FMLA claim was barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity.
The State argued Congress did not enact the FMLA "self-care" provision to remedy a pattern of sex-based discrimination found in states’ sick leave policies. The "self-care" provision of the FMLA was passed pursuant to the Commerce Clause, which cannot be used to pierce a states’ sovereign immunity. The District Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
This decision only denies employees of state agencies, state universities, and their political subdivisions (cities, counties, public boards, etc.), the right to sue state employers under the "self-care" provision of the FMLA. Public employers are reminded that all other forms of FMLA leave remain protected, so to avoid liability under other employment laws, public employers should continue enforcing medical leave policies consistently.