Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Daniel Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, a case in which the justices will decide whether states can be held accountable for violating the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if they deny state workers the right to take leave for their own serious medical needs, including pregnancy and childbirth.
“The Court’s decision in this case could have a tremendous impact on millions of state workers, who stand to lose a crucial protection they have been counting on for nearly 20 years,” said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, which drafted and led the fight to pass the FMLA and filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. “That includes working women — the very group Congress sought to protect in passing the law.”
Congress passed the FMLA in 1993 to address what it saw as persistent sex discrimination in the workplace. Under the law’s two key provisions — self-care and family-care — workers can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to recover from a serious illness or medical condition, including pregnancy or childbirth, or to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child or a seriously ill family member.
In 2007, Daniel Coleman was working as an employee of the Maryland court system. He requested medical leave under the FMLA’s self-care provision after his doctor prescribed bed rest to treat a serious medical condition. The next day, he received a termination letter. Coleman subsequently filed suit in federal court, seeking a remedy for the state’s violation of his right to take medical leave to recover from illness under the FMLA.
“A fundamental protection for workers and families hangs in the balance in this case,” warned Judith L. Lichtman, senior advisor at the National Partnership and the nation’s foremost expert on the law. “If the more than five million state workers in this country like Daniel Coleman cannot hold states accountable for denying them leave to recover from serious illness, workers and their families will suffer.”
“When Congress passed the FMLA,” Lichtman continued, “it extended leave benefits on a gender-neutral basis to workers in both the private and public sectors to prevent sex discrimination against women in the workplace. Given this clear intent, which 47 current and former high-ranking members of Congress reiterate in a brief to the Court, it is critical that the Court uphold state workers’ right to self-care leave.”
Lower courts ruled against Coleman, based on the 11th Amendment’s state sovereign immunity provision, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that the FMLA’s family-care provision applies to state workers (see Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 2003). Coleman appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The Court must recognize Congress’ intent here, as it did in Hibbs with the FMLA’s family-care provision,” Lichtman said.
The National Partnership’s director of workplace fairness, Sarah Crawford, will sit at counsel’s table for the petitioner at oral arguments. A decision is likely early this summer.
Background materials on the case, including an audio press briefing with the petitioner and his counsel, is available at NationalPartnership.org/Coleman. To talk to any of the briefing’s participants, contact Sadie Kliner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-986-2600.