Supreme Court Watch

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, 2012 WL 912951 (U.S. Supreme Court Mar. 20, 212).

In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court ruled that states are immune from suit brought under the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  In reaching this conclusion, the Court distinguished its 2003 decision in Nevada Dep’t of Human Resources v. Hibbs, in which the Court ruled that states could be sued under the family-care provisions of the FMLA.  The family-care provisions of the FMLA are the provisions that allow an employee to take FMLA leave at the birth or adoption or foster placement of a child or to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition.  The self-care provision of the FMLA allows an employee to take FMLA leave for his or her own serious health condition.

To understand how the Court could reach a different result in Coleman from Hibbs, one must understand our federal system of government and how the 11th Amendment works.  The Court explained,

A foundational premise of the federal system is that States, as sovereigns, are immune from suits from damages, save as they elect to waive that defense.  As an exception to this principle, Congress may abrogate the States’ immunity from suit pursuant to its powers under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In deciding whether Congress had abrogated the States’ immunity from suit under its power to remedy discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment, the majority decision distinguished the FMLA’s self-care provision from the family-care provisions.  The majority determined that Congress had the authority to abrogate the States’ immunity from suit for the family care provisions under its power to enact laws to “remedy or prevent” sex discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment.  By contrast, the majority determined that the self-care provision was not aimed to end sex discrimination in employment as there was insufficient evidence before Congress that there was any pattern of sex discrimination in how States administered their sick leave plans and policies.  Rather, the self-care provision was aimed at ending discrimination on the basis of illness.  Therefore, Congress did not have the authority under the Fourteenth Amendment to abrogate States’ immunity from suit when enacting the self-care provisions of the FMLA.

The dissent, written by Justine Ginsberg, disagreed that there was insufficient evidence that the self-care provision of the FMLA was aimed at remedying sex discrimination, pointing out, for example, that the self-care provision provided leave due to pregnancy-related medical conditions, which Congress found was a fertile ground for discrimination against female employees, and that the statutory provisions had to be read as an integrated whole in achieving the goal of remedying sex discrimination.