A foundational premise of the federal system is that states, as sovereigns, are immune from suits for damages, save as they elect to waive that defense. As an exception to this principle, Congress may abrogate the states' immunity from suit pursuant to its powers under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Suits under the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 by state employees against the state entities that employ them are barred by the States' sovereign immunity.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C.S. § 2601 et seq., entitled an employee to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave per year for (A) the care of a newborn son or daughter; (B) the adoption or foster-care placement of a child; (C) the care of a spouse, son, daughter, or parent with a serious medical condition; and (D) the employee's own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee's ability to perform at work. The FMLA also created a private right of action for equitable relief and damages “against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court.” Petitioner Daniel Coleman filed suit, alleging that his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, an instrumentality of the State, violated the FMLA by denying him self-care leave. The Federal District Court dismissed the suit on sovereign immunity grounds. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that unlike the family-care provision in Hibbs, 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.
Did the appellate court err in holding that the state employer violated the FMLA by refusing to provide the state employee with self-care leave?
The court of appeals' judgment was affirmed on certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States. A plurality of the Court distinguished FMLA provision § 2612(a)(1)(D) from the family-care provision under § 2612(a)(1)(C), which had previously been held to be enforceable against the states based on a valid abrogation of sovereign immunity pursuant to U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 5. There was evidence at the time of the FMLA's enactment that states' family-leave policies discriminated against women, but the evidence did not suggest that the states had discriminatory self-care leave policies. The plurality therefore found that the self-care leave provision was not congruent and proportional to a pattern of state constitutional violations. It was not shown that the self-care provision was necessary to make the family-care provisions effective. To the extent that the provision helped single parents retain their jobs and therefore addressed neutral leave policies with a disparate impact on women, it was not directed at a pattern of constitutional violations.