US Supreme Court Limits FMLA Protections for State Workers

In a 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court recently held in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals that state governmental employers could not be sued for money damages under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by workers who took medical leave for their own serious health conditions.   In this case, the plaintiff, Mr. Coleman, alleged he was fired after attempting to take a ten day medical leave to deal with his diabetes and hypertension.

If you were to learn more here, you’d know that, under the FMLA, qualified employees are entitled to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid medical leave under four circumstances:

  1. the birth of a child, and subsequent care for the newborn;
  2. the adoption or foster care placement of a child;
  3. the care of a spouse, son, daughter, or parent with “a serious health condition”; and
  4. the employee’s own “serious health condition”.

Basically, FMLA leaves are divided up into two categories:  “self care” and “family care” leaves.   “Self care” leave includes taking time off for the employee’s own pregnancy-related matters, an injury or medical condition.   “Family care” leave would encompass an employee taking time off to care for a newborn after delivery, a newly adopted child, or caring for a spouse, child or parent with a serious medical condition. The latter would bears costs incurred through buying medicines and Medical transportation. The Supreme Court previously decided in Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs  that state workers could sue for money damages (i.e. back pay) for violations of the “family care” provisions, but left open the question whether damages could be sought for “self care” violations.    We now know that the answer to the latter question is no.

State workers are now much more vulnerable when requesting or taking medical leave for pregnancy-related matters (e.g. prenatal care, complications from the pregnancy or delivery, and/or childbirth recovery), as well as medical leave for injuries, illnesses and other medical conditions.   Does this mean that state governments are permitted to violate the FMLA?  Well, no, but the incentive to comply is arguably diminished.   State workers can only sue for reinstatement, but not recover any lost wages or the value of lost benefits.    Since litigation often takes a year or more, reinstatement with no back pay may be a hollow victory not worth pursuing, particularly when most terminated employees would have found a new job somewhere else.  There’s an old saying that “a juicy bone is useless to a dog without teeth.”   Unfortunately, a great piece of legislation has now become pretty useless to many public servants.

“Health is the greatest of all possessions; a pale cobbler is better than a sick king.”
–Isaac Bickerstaff

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John Wenke is an Employment Law Attorney practicing in the area of employment discrimination, wrongful termination, retaliation, and sexual harassment. Mr. Wenke represents employees in Texas and New Mexico, including but not limited to El Paso,  Las Cruces, Alamogordo, Pecos, Marfa, Alpine, Presidio, and Del Rio.