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Supreme Court rules on state sovereign immunity under FMLA

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 5-4 [opinion, PDF] Tuesday in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] on the abrogation of states' Eleventh Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] sovereign immunity by the self-care leave provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) [DOL backgrounder]. Petitioner Daniel Coleman was terminated from his job and filed suit under Title VII and the FMLA seeking money damages, alleging that his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, violated the FMLA by denying him self-care leave. The FMLA's "self-care provision" entitles an employee to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave per year for the employee's own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee's ability to perform at work. The FMLA also creates a private right of action for equitable relief and damages "against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court." In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court held:

[Lawsuits] against States under this provision are barred by the States' immunity as sovereigns in our federal system. ... To abrogate the States' immunity from suits for damages ... Congress must identify a pattern of constitutional violations and tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations. It failed to do so when it allowed employees to sue States for violations of the FMLA's self-care provision.
The judgment affirmed a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which had affirmed a district court's dismissal on sovereign immunity grounds and held [opinion, PDF] that the self-care provision was not directed at an identified pattern of gender-based discrimination and was not congruent and proportional to any pattern of sex-based discrimination on the part of States. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia filed separate concurring opinions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer and in part by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan.

The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in the case in January. Coleman argued that Congress passed the self-care leave provision in an effort to protect women from employment discrimination by giving all employees, men included, equal right to leave. The state of Maryland asserted that the self-care leave provision's purposes are not sufficiently in line with the Equal Protection Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] to overcome states' sovereign immunity.

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