Labor and Employment Law

VanDeusen on Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals

In Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to subscribers], the Fourth Circuit joined five other appellate courts in holding that the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act does not apply to the states because Congress did not properly abrogate the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity. Despite the lack of any apparent Circuit split on the issue, the Supreme Court granted Coleman's petition for a writ of certiorari to address the question of "[w]hether Congress constitutionally abrogated the states' Eleventh Amendment Immunity when it passed the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act." On March 20, 2012, the Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit's decision by a 5-4 vote, clarifying that, while the family-care provisions of the FMLA validly abrogate the states' sovereign immunity, the self-care provision does not.

Coleman was the Court's third look at the FMLA, and its second look at the issue of immunity. The first FMLA case to get the Court's attention was Ragsdale v. Wolverine Worldwide, Inc., where the Court rejected a 1995 DOL regulation that extended leave beyond the 12 week entitlement if the employer failed to notify the employee that leave would be treated as FMLA leave. The next year, in Nevada Dept. of Human Res. v. Hibbs, the Court considered whether Congress abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity, but limited the ruling to the family care provisions of the Act.


The FMLA provision at issue in Coleman was section 2612(a)(1)(D), that permits leave "[b]ecause of a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee."

Few facts were relevant to the case before the Court. Daniel Coleman was employed by the Court of Appeals of Maryland. Coleman alleged that when he requested sick leave, he was told that he would be terminated if he did not resign. Coleman sued for, among other things, violation of the FMLA. The District Court granted the State of Maryland's motion to dismiss, holding that the FMLA claim was barred by Eleventh Amendment Immunity. Coleman appealed, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed on the same grounds: Congress did not validly abrogate the states' immunity when it passed the FMLA self-care provision. [footnotes omitted]

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