The Supreme Court handed down a FMLA decision with Maryland roots today, Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland. The Court found that the Family Medical Leave Act did not abrogate state soverign immunity for self-care claims.
The issue in Coleman: States have soverign immunity from lawsuits unless Congress specifically abrogates that immunity with its power to do so under the 14th Amendment. The abrogation must meet two tests: first, it must be “unmistakable” and then it must be “congruent and proprotional” to an injury under the 14th amendment. The 14th amendment’s substantive provisions in this context are mainly related to discrimination, so the abrogation of state soverign immunity usually must be related to some type of discrimination.
Bringing us to Mr. Coleman, he worked for the Maryland Court of Appeals — a state with soverign immunity. He claimed that the Court of Appeals violated his right to self-care leave under the FMLA and that Congress abrogated Maryland’s soverign immunity under the Act. There was no doubt that the abrogation met the first test — it was unmistakable that Congress meant for the FMLA to apply to state government bodies like the Maryland Court of Appeals. But the Court found that the second part of the abrogation test was not met — in that the abrogation was not “congruent and proportional” to the 14th Amendment. Coleman had argued that the self-care provision helps single parents, who are disproportionially female — a protected class under the 14th Amendment. But the Court rejected that argument, finding that the FMLA’s self-care provisions were aimed at “neutral leave policies” and that even if disparate impact was found, it was not “sufficient evidence” of discrimination itself.
Likewise, the Court rejected Coleman’s argument that the self-care provision was originally directed at sex-sterotyping. Here it seems that Coleman rested his argument on the fact that the self-care provision is usually used by pregnant women. But the Court found:
Although the self-care provision offers some women a benefit by allowing them to take leave for pregnancy-related illnesses, the provision, as a remedy, is not congruent and proportional to any identified constitutional violations. When the FMLA was enacted, Congress had no evidence that States were excluding pregnancy-related illnesses from their leave policies.
Finally, the Court found no evidence that the self-care provision was a “necessary-adjunct” to the family-care provision. Coleman undoubtedly tried to link the self-care and family care provisions because the Supreme Court, previsouly, found that the FMLA family-care provisions did abrogate state soverign immunity. But the “family-care” provisions had roots in sex discrimination (i.e. better leave policies for men) and thus met the 14th amendment “congruent and proportionality” requirement.