Supreme Court Rules States Immune from FMLA Claims for Self-care


On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 5-4 decision in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland declaring states immune from Family and Medical Leave Act claims for self-care.

Coleman filed suit, arguing that his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, violated the FMLA by denying him leave for his own serious health condition. The federal district court dismissed the suit on sovereign immunity grounds, and both the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and now the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.

This holding applies only to state governments—not local governments or political subdivisions of the state. This is because, under the federal system, states are sovereign and immune from damages, unless they waive that defense. Congress may deny the states’ immunity, because of its powers under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. But to do so, Congress must use “unmistakably clear language” in the statute. Congress did not do this in the FMLA.

A previous decision by the Supreme Court, Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs (2003), held that due to a past practice of leave policies differentiated on the basis of sex resulting in sex discrimination, Congress could subject states to FMLA suits under the family-care provisions. This newest decision made clear that self-care was different from family-care, and that there was no evidence that leave for self-care was gender-based. The Court reasoned that because there was no evidence of discrimination when it came to self-care, Congress could not do away with sovereign immunity for the states.

There are three important items for employers to remember about this decision: 1) this is the fifth Supreme Court decision in a line of cases that apply only to state governments; 2) the FMLA still applies to state governments in cases of family-care; and 3) the FMLA still applies to local governments, political subdivisions of the state, which are not a part of state government, and all other covered employers.