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Friday, March 23, 2012

Supreme Court Restricts FMLA Application to States

Alabama@ Work
By Tommy Eden, Attorney

Daniel Coleman was employed by the Maryland Court of Appeals as executive director of procurement and contract administration. He was forced to resign or be terminated the day after he requested sick leave. Not surprisingly, Coleman sued the Maryland Court of Appeals for firing him for requesting sick leave.

In its federal court filing the State of Maryland moved to dismiss Coleman's complaint on the grounds that it was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The State argued that Congress did not enact the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) self-care provision of the FMLA to remedy a pattern of gender-based discrimination in the state's sick leave policies. Rather, the self-care provision was passed pursuant to the Commerce Clause. The Commerce Clause under constitutional law cannot be used to pierce the states' sovereign immunity. Look for this argument to surface in the ObamaCare case which will be argued for three days next week before the Supreme Court.

On March 20, 2012, the Supreme Court sided with the State of Maryland and held that Congress exceeded its authority in subjecting the States to private lawsuits under the “self-care provision” of the FMLA.

The high Court held that although it is well established that Congress enacted the “family care provisions” of the FMLA pursuant to its Fourteenth Amendment mandate to ensure equal protection of all citizens, FMLA's self-care provision was not tied to an identified pattern of sex-based discrimination on the part of the states and, thus does not permit suits against the states by their employees. Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeal, In 2003, the Supreme Court held that Congress, pursuant to its Fourteenth Amendment powers, properly abrogated the States' sovereign immunity with regard to the family-care provision of the FMLA. Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs.

IMPACT OF THIS DECISION: The Decision Applies Only To Public Employers. The Supreme Court has insulated States and their political subdivisions (cities, counties, public boards, etc) from suits by employees alleging violations of the “self-care provision” of the Act. The FMLA’s “family-care provision” of the FMLA still applies because of the 2003 Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs decision. Still left open is whether states can be sued by employees for violations of the newborn or adopted-child care provision of the FMLA.

Common Sense Counsel: This decision mandates new FMLA and Non-FMLA leave policies by all agencies of the State of Alabama. Private employers should update their policies to include non-FMLA leave as an ADA reasonable accommodation. Also, the Department of Labor FMLA forms now have a new February 2012 release date.

Tommy Eden is a Lee County native, an attorney with the local office of Capell & Howard, PC and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at or 334-501-1540 or