U.S. High Court Majority Upholds State's Immunity From Employee's Bias Suit

U.S. High Court Majority Upholds State's Immunity From Employee's Bias Suit

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) A state employee is blocked by sovereign immunity from recovering damages from his state employer for claims of discrimination brought under the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a split U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 20, affirming a decision by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (Daniel Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, et al., No. 10-1016, U.S. Sup.). 

(Opinion. Document #73-120413-007Z.) 

"There is nothing in particular about self-care leave, as opposed to leave for any personal reason, that connects it to gender discrimination.  And when the issue, as here, is whether subparagraph (D) can abrogate a State's immunity from damages, there is no sufficient nexus, or indeed any demonstrated nexus, between self-care leave and gender discrimination by state employers.  Documented discrimination against women in the general workplace is a persistent, unfortunate reality, and, we must assume, a still prevalent wrong.  An explicit purpose of the Congress in adopting the FMLA was to improve workplace conditions for women.  See 29 U.S.C. §§2601(b)(4), (5).  But States may not be subject to suits for damages based on violations of a comprehensive statute unless Congress has identified a specific pattern of constitutional violations by state employers," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.   

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. joined in the opinion.  Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia filed opinions concurring in the judgment. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which she held that the self-care provision "validly enforces the right to be free from gender discrimination in the workplace." 

Justice Stephen G. Breyer fully joined in the dissent.  Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined in the dissent as to all but footnote 1, of which Justice Ginsburg stated, "I remain of the view that Congress can abrogate state sovereign immunity pursuant to its Article I Commerce Clause power.  . . .  I also share the view that Congress can abrogate state immunity pursuant to §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment where Congress could reasonably conclude that legislation 'constitutes an appropriate way to enforce [a] basic equal protection requirement.'  Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. V. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 377 (2001) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]."   

Daniel Coleman, a black male, was hired by the Maryland Court of Appeals in March 2001 and has served as executive director of procurement and contract administration since early 2003. He was supervised by Frank Broccolina, a white male, and Faye Gaskins, whose race was not specified.  Larry Jones, a member of Coleman's staff, was a relative of Gaskins'. 

In October 2005, Coleman investigated a matter involving Jones and Joyce Shue, a white female.  Coleman's investigation resulted in Jones being suspended for five days.  However, Broccolina and Gaskins intervened, and Jones' suspension was reduced to one day.  Jones, in retaliation for Coleman's investigation, falsely alleged that Coleman had steered contracts to vendors in which Coleman had an interest.  Broccolina, in turn, shared the allegations with others despite knowing they were false. 

In early April 2007, Coleman received a letter of reprimand from Gaskins concerning "a communication protocol."  Coleman's appeal of the reprimand was unsuccessful. 

On Aug. 2, 2007, Coleman sent Broccolina a sick-leave request.  Broccolina contacted Coleman the next day and informed him that he would be terminated if he did not resign.  Coleman claimed that he was fired for requesting sick leave and because he is black.  He also claimed that the false contract-steering charge played a role in his termination. 

After exhausting his administrative remedies, Coleman sued Broccolina, Jones and the court in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.  He brought claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the FMLA.  The District Court dismissed the Title VII claim on the grounds that Coleman failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted.  It dismissed his FMLA claim on the basis that it was barred by the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution immunity.  Coleman appealed. 

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court ruling, and Coleman petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Michael L. Foreman of Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, Dickinson School of Law in University Park, Pa., represents Coleman.  John B. Howard Jr., William F. Brockman and Hugh S. Curtis of the Attorney General's Office in Baltimore represent the Court of Appeals of Maryland, Broccolina and Jones. 

Sarah C. Crawford of National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, D.C., filed an amicus brief on behalf of National Partnership for Women & Families, AARP, AFSCME International, American Civil Liberties Union, A Better Balance, National Employment Lawyers Association, National Senior Citizens Law Center, the National Women's Law Center, 9to5, National Association of Working Women and Service Employees International Union.  Jon M. Greenbaum of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  Mark E. Haddad of Sidley Austin in Los Angeles filed an amicus brief on behalf of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, Rep. George Miller and additional members of Congress.  Deputy Solicitor General Sean D. Jordan in Austin, Texas, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Clifford M. Sloan of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of Constitutional Accountability Center. 

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