Suits Against the State for FMLA Retaliation Based on Self Care Barred by Sovereign Immunity Says Supreme Court

In March, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, holding that the FMLA’s provisions for leave to care for an individual’s own serious health condition could not be applied to employees of State (not local gov’t) agencies under the doctrine of sovereign immunity (the 10th Amendment), and suits against states for violating the FMLA relating to the self-care provisions were barred by the 11th Amendment. It held that Congress did not have the power to abrogate the state’s sovereign immunity for such a purpose under the 14th Amendment.

This does not affect FMLA leave requirements where the purpose is to care for “: (A) “the birth of a son or daughter . . . in order to care for such son or daughter,” (B) the adoption or foster-care placement of a child with the employee, (C) the care of a “spouse . . . son, daughter, or parent” with “a serious health condition,”

In Nevada Dept of Human Resources v. Hibbs, the Court had held that there was evidence that states administered their leave policies in a sexually discriminatory manner with respect to granting leaves for care of immediate family members, so that the 14th Amendment allowed Congress to abrogate State sovereign immunity and permit suits against states for violation of the FMLA in such cases.

Thus, if the purpose of the leave is to care for the State employee’s own serious health condition, enforcement in federal courts is blocked by the 10th and 11th amendments. Local governments don’t have sovereign immunity under the 10th and 11th amendments, and thus the FMLA in its entirety can be applied to them.

Read the full text of the opinion.