March 20, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland

On March 20, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, No. 10-1016, holding that states retain sovereign immunity and cannot be subjected to suits for damages by employees alleging violations of the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D), because the abrogation of sovereign immunity through the self-care provision of the FMLA exceeded congressional power.

Coleman, an employee of the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland was denied sick leave and informed he would be terminated unless he resigned. Coleman sued his employer in federal district court alleging an FMLA violation for failing to provide him with leave for his serious health condition. The district court dismissed the suit on the ground that the Maryland Court of Appeals, an entity of the State of Maryland, was immune from damages on the ground of sovereign immunity. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court affirmed. A majority of justices determined that the attempted abrogation of state sovereign immunity through the self-care provision of the FMLA was not a valid exercise of congressional power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. A plurality of the justices concluded that the self-care provision was not "congruent and proportional" to identified constitutional violations because "[w]ithout evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave, it is apparent that the congressional purpose in enacting the self-care provision is unrelated to these supposed wrongs." The plurality distinguished Nevada Dep't of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721 (2003), which held that Congress could subject states to suit for violations of 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(C), the family-care provision of the FMLA, based on evidence in Hibbs that states had family-leave policies that differentiated on the basis of sex or had neutral policies that were administered in ways that discriminated on the basis of sex.

Justice Scalia, concurring in the judgment of the Court, reasoned that denying state employees leave for the purpose of self-care did not constitute conduct that itself violated the Fourteenth Amendment and was thus outside the province of congressional power to regulate.

Justice Kennedy announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Thomas filed a separate concurring opinion. Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined and in which Justices Sotomayor and Kagan joined except as to footnote 1.

Download Opinion of the Court

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