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States immune from lawsuits over sick time, says US Supreme Court

States immune from lawsuits over sick time, says US Supreme Court

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A state employee who was denied leave for his own sickness cannot sue the state for violating the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Supreme Court has ruled in a 5-4 decision.

States are immune under the Eleventh Amendment from suits under the self-care provision of FMLA, a plurality of the Court said.

The plaintiff, David Coleman, worked for the Maryland Court of Appeals. When he requested sick leave, he was fired. He sued the state for violating FMLA.

A federal court found that the state had sovereign immunity and dismissed his suit. The 4th Circuit affirmed, citing similar decisions from the 5th, 6th, 7th and 10th Circuits.

The Supreme Court took the case and heard oral arguments in January.

In its ruling, four members of the Court said that unlike the family-care provisions that aimed to address gender discrimination because family care responsibilities traditionally fell on women, the self-care provision protects men and women equally and therefore did not trigger the constitutional violation needed to abrogate sovereign immunity.

“There is nothing in particular about self-care leave, as opposed to leave for any personal reason that connects it to gender discrimination. … An explicit purpose of the Congress in adopting the FMLA was to improve workplace conditions for women. 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,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in the judgment, but would have based it on an analysis of whether the conduct itself violated the Fourteenth Amendment, to which failure to grant sick leave “does not come close.”

Four justices dissented, saying that the self-care provision is a “key part” of FMLA’s purpose of reducing sex-based inequalities in leave programs.

U.S. Supreme Court. Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, No. 10-1016.


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