Legal Alert: Supreme Court holds that States Cannot Be Sued for Damages under FMLA's Self-Care Provision

Date   Mar 21, 2012

On March 20, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states are immune from suit under the self-care provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). 


Executive Summary:  On March 20, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states are immune from suit under the self-care provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  See Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, No. 10-1016 (March 20, 2012).

The FMLA provides, among other things, that eligible employees are entitled to take a total of 12 weeks of leave during a twelve-month period due to the employee's own serious health condition (the self-care provision) or due to a family member's serious health condition, or the birth, adoption, or placement of a child for adoption or foster care (the family-care provisions). 

Generally, states are immune from lawsuits for damages unless they waive this immunity.  Congress can, however, abrogate states' immunity from suit pursuant to its powers under §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Legislation enacted under §5 must be targeted at conduct violating the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive provisions and there "must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end."

Previously, the Supreme Court, in Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U. S. 721 (2003), held that states could be sued for damages for violations of the family-care provisions of the FMLA.  The Court reached this decision in Hibbs because it found that states had family leave policies that differentiated on the basis of sex and administered neutral family leave policies in ways that discriminated on the basis of sex.

In Coleman the Court distinguished Hibbs because "what the family-care provisions have to support them, the self-care provision lacks, namely evidence of a pattern of state constitutional violations accompanied by a remedy drawn in narrow terms to address or prevent those violations."  The Court held that when the FMLA was enacted, evidence did not suggest that states had facially discriminatory self-care leave policies or that they administered neutral self-care leave policies in a discriminatory way.  Thus, without widespread evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave, the Court found it apparent that the Congressional purpose in enacting the self-care provision was "unrelated to these supposed wrongs."

The Court also noted that states are not required to assert their immunity from suit.  Accordingly, if a state agrees that "damages liability for violations of the self-care provision is necessary to combat discrimination against women, the State may waive its immunity or create a parallel state law cause of action."

Employers' Bottom Line:

The Court's decision is good news for state employers because it limits their exposure to damages under the FMLA.  The decision does not apply to private-sector employers, who are still subject to suits for damages for violation of the FMLA's self-care provision.

If you have any questions regarding this decision, please contact the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you usually work.