On January 11, 2012 the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals about considering whether states can avoid financial liability for “self-care” claims under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Daniel Coleman, an African-American male who was employed by the Maryland state court system, alleged he was discriminated against after asking for sick leave, in violation of the FMLA. After being put on bed rest by his doctor to treat a serious medical condition, Coleman was fired from the job in the court system. The FMLA guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year without fearing for job security if they need that time to recover from serious health conditions, care for themselves in pregnancy, care for their newly born/adopted children, or care for seriously ill family members. In enacting the law, Congress explicitly recognized that it was consistent with civil rights efforts against workplace discrimination to ensure that leave is available for eligible medical reasons on a gender-neutral basis.
The 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution shields states from monetary liability under most federal laws. Congress can abrogate that immunity but only if it does so intentionally, justifies the abrogation with evidence documenting the need for such action, tailors the measure narrowly to address the wrong, and identifies a basis in the Constitution for acting in the first place. In Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, a landmark case in 2003 determined that money damages could by sought against state employers for refusing to permit unpaid FMLA leave. The Court ruled that Congress enacted the FMLA’s “family care” provisions out of concern about gender inequality in leave policies to care for children and other family members. The question in Coleman’s case now turns to whether the same rationale also applies to state workers needing FMLA leave to care for their own medical conditions.
AARP filed an amicus brief in Hibbs joined by eight groups, including the ACLU of Maryland, advocating for worker rights and protection of civil liberties. “A decision denying state employees the right to enforce the FMLA’s self-care provision would undermine the FMLA’s overall effectiveness and severely hamper efforts to equalize the treatment of men and women in the workplace…All too frequently, workers suffer negative consequences after requesting or taking leave to address their medical needs,” argues the brief, noting the numerous studies that document this discrimination. The ACLU of Maryland noted that if this case is decided against Coleman, there could be negative consequences not only for state employees that take leave for self-care, but also for female employees in general given the insecure condition of the economy. Female employees have often been discriminated against in the past when applying for jobs or when new mothers take maternity leave. The ACLU fears this old issue may again become more frequent if the Court finds for the State in the Coleman case because of an overall deterioration of state employees’ rights to secure leave.