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Coleman v. Maryland Ct. of Appeals

AARP Asks Supreme Court to Uphold Family and Medical Leave Act Protections for State Employees

The Supreme Court is considering whether states can avoid financial liability for "self-care" claims under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).


Daniel Coleman, who was employed by the Maryland state court system, alleged he was discriminated against after asking for sick leave, in violation of the FMLA. The FMLA guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year without fearing for job security if they need that time to recover from serious health conditions, care for themselves in pregnancy, care for their newly born/adopted children or care for seriously ill family members. In enacting the law, Congress explicitly recognized that it was consistent with civil rights efforts against workplace discrimination to ensure that leave is available for eligible medical reasons on a gender-neutral basis.

The 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution shields states from monetary liability under most federal laws. Congress can abrogate that immunity but only if it does so intentionally, justifies the abrogation with evidence documenting the need for such action, tailors the measure narrowly to address the wrong and identifies a basis in the Constitution for acting in the first place. In the case of various employment laws, Congress has succeeded in justifying money damages against state employers that can be shown to further "equal protection of the laws," a central goal of the 14th Amendment.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs that the 14th Amendment justified money damages against state employers for refusing to permit unpaid FMLA leave for covered state employees seeking to care for family members. The Court ruled that Congress enacted the FMLA's "family care" provisions out of concern about gender inequality in leave policies to care for children and other family members. The question now turns to whether the same rationale also applies to state workers needing FMLA leave to care for their own medical conditions.

AARP filed a brief in Hibbs joining eight groups advocating for worker rights and protection of civil liberties, and attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation have now filed AARP's "friend of the court" brief in Coleman v. Maryland Ct. of Appeals. The brief parses the FMLA's language, its legislative history and the Hibbs decision, and it argues that the Supreme Court is compelled to find an intent to bypass the states' usual immunity from money damages in the current dispute as well.

What's at Stake

"A decision denying state employees the right to enforce the FMLA's self-care provision would undermine the FMLA's overall effectiveness and severely hamper efforts to equalize the treatment of men and women in the workplace … All too frequently, workers suffer negative consequences after requesting or taking leave to address their medical needs," argues the brief, noting the numerous studies that document this discrimination. Finally, the brief examines the history of inadequate state efforts to address the wrongs righted by FMLA and consequently, the need for this law.

Case Status

Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 11, 2012.

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