Supreme Court to Decide State Workers’ Rights under FMLA

January 11, 2012
Guest Post

By Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness, National Partnership for Women & Families


The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral argument today in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals – a case that could erode the right of millions of state workers to take job-protected, unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when faced with a serious illness.

The FMLA set an important family and medical leave standard that guarantees eligible workers – both women and men – up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to recover from a serious illness or medical condition, including pregnancy or childbirth, or to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child or a seriously ill family member. The FMLA offered leave on a gender-neutral basis rather than creating a special right to self-care leave for medical illness surrounding pregnancy, in part to avoid creating perverse incentives for further discrimination against women.

Since its enactment 18 years ago, workers have used the FMLA more than 100 million times. The law has helped workers disabled by pregnancy or recovering from childbirth, workers with new babies and dying parents, workers who have had heart attacks and hysterectomies – in short, workers for whom job-protected leave is of critical importance. An adverse decision from the Supreme Court could put access to FMLA self-care leave at risk for millions of state workers. At stake is their fundamental right to take time off to address their own serious medical needs, including pregnancy and childbirth.

Petitioner Daniel Coleman was working for a Maryland court when his doctor ordered bed rest due to serious illness. Within hours of requesting medical leave, Coleman was fired. He then filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of the FMLA. Contrary to the plain language of the statute, the lower courts ruled that the state of Maryland could not be sued for monetary damages under the FMLA’s self-care provision.

The Supreme Court is now poised to decide whether Congress validly abrogated the states’ Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity by acting to address unconstitutional discrimination.

In point of fact, when the legislation was being considered, Congress collected an enormous amount of evidence demonstrating clearly that outdated workplace policies and practices denied women equal employment opportunity, including discriminatory policies and practices by state governments. Congress found that women continued to face persistent sex discrimination relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Thus, Congress enacted the FMLA pursuant to its power to address unconstitutional discrimination under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Joined by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, workers’ rights groups, and labor organizations, the National Partnership for Women & Families filed an amicus brief urging the Court to uphold the plain language of the FMLA, which established critical leave rights for state workers. Like private employers, states must be held accountable when they violate their employees’ rights to self-care leave.

Notably, the Supreme Court already has established that state workers can sue their employers for monetary damages for violations of the family-care provision of the FMLA. In the 2003 case of Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbsthe Court ruled that Congress validly abrogated state sovereign immunity pursuant to its Fourteenth Amendment authority with respect to the FMLA’s family-care provision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist concluded that Congress clearly intended to protect state workers from sex discrimination by providing job-protected leave to care for a family member. Indeed, the Court got it right in the Hibbs case, and the same analysis applies under the self-care provision at issue in the Coleman case. 

The millions of state workers who are struggling with their own medical illness or who may face a serious illness in the future have to fervently hope that the Court gets it right again. Those workers have a tremendous amount at stake in this case.