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The Law

Medical Leave Rights for State Workers

Can they receive financial damages if denied time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act?

The issue: Can state workers receive monetary damages if they are denied time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act?

Daniel Coleman, 59, of Baltimore worked at the Maryland Court of Appeals for six years, including four as executive director for procurement. But in August 2007 he took a 10-day leave of absence for a medical condition. Within four hours of notifying his boss by email that he had to take time off, he was told he could either resign with 30 days' leave or be immediately terminated. In the end, he was fired.

See also: Caregiving grandmother gets fired.

"I am still very emotional about this," Coleman said in an interview. "This happened in an organization that is supposed to stand for justice." At the time, Coleman had one son in college and another about to go. "In four hours, I went from six figures [in salary] to zero," he said.

Coleman sued the Maryland Court of Appeals for denial of coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. He claimed that he was a victim of retaliation when he was fired and should have been covered by the FMLA's self-care medical provisions. But so far, two lower federal courts — the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, in 2009, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., in 2010 ­ — have thrown out Coleman's case on the grounds that the agency where Coleman worked, because it is a state employer, is protected by the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and cannot be sued for financial damages.

That amendment sometimes protects states, even when federal law is violated. AARP has joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Coleman.

With his case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Coleman's lawyers will argue that he is entitled to the same federal protections given to private-sector employees who are covered by the FMLA.

In 2003, the Supreme Court, in Nevada v. Hibbs, ruled that the family leave provisions of the FMLA do, in fact, apply to state government employees. It is the medical leave provisions that are now before the high court.

Older workers at state agencies have a major stake in the outcome of the Coleman case. Without damages as a remedy, their ability to get state employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for "serious medical conditions," as the FMLA requires, is at risk, said Dan Kohrman, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation.

"We hope this case will establish parity between medical leave rights for state workers, which include a great many older workers, and all other public and private employees," Kohrman said.

Coleman now works as director of procurement for Baltimore City Community College.

What it means to you: If you are a state worker who needs a medical leave, check in advance to see if the agency where you work will grant one. Watch the outcome of the upcoming Supreme Court case.

Also of interest: Proving age discrimination during layoffs.

Emily Sachar is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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