Enforcement of Family Medical Leave Act Weakened by Supreme Court

Legal Update
Enforcement of Family Medical Leave Act Weakened by Supreme Court
State workers denied pregnancy or medical leave can no longer seek monetary damages

Today, in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, the Supreme Court held that state workers cannot sue for money damages for violations of the “self-care” provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Enacted in 1993, the FMLA allows eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave (1) to care for their own serious health condition, (2) to care for a seriously ill family member, or (3) to bond with a new child.

The Court previously held in Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs that Congress validly allowed states to be sued for violations of the “family care” provision of the FMLA, since that provision was based on evidence that family medical leave policies discriminated based on sex.

In today’s decision, the Court ruled that Congress lacked the power to abrogate states’ immunity under the “self-care” provision of the FMLA because that provision was not aimed at an identified pattern of gender discrimination, and was not congruent and proportional to a pattern of sex-based discrimination by the states.

As Justice Ginsberg noted in her dissent, Congress, in enacting the self-care provision of the FMLA, was responding to “evidence of a well-documented pattern of workplace discrimination against pregnant women.” She explained that self-care leave “is a key part of Congress’ endeavor to make it feasible for women to work and have families.”

The Coleman decision means that state workers are left without a meaningful remedy when they are denied leave for pregnancy or to care for their own serious illness. The decision affects men and women alike, extending to all state workers who are denied medical leave under the FMLA.

Despite the Court’s weakening of the self-care provision of the FMLA, as Justice Ginsberg noted, both the states and private employers still must comply with this provision, and state workers still may sue for injunctive relief. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Labor may bring an action for monetary damages on an employee’s behalf.