Supreme Court: ‘State employee, heal thyself on thy own time’

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has states and state employees scrambling to update their policy manuals. In Wisconsin, the decision may affect the rights of about 95,000 government employees under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The issue is an employee’s leave to recover from his or her own serious medical condition.

The case originated with a man who worked for a state’s court of appeals (not Wisconsin). He developed a serious medical condition and asked the court for leave under the federal FMLA. The law allows 12 weeks of unpaid leave for conditions that interfere with the employee’s ability to do his or her job. Although he was a good employee, the court fired him.

He filed a lawsuit. The federal FMLA specifically allows an employee to seek relief, including money damages, from any employer, including a public agency. Public agencies were specifically called out because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity essentially bars civilians from filing suits for damages against governments, their agencies and their agents.

However, a 2003 Supreme Court decision narrowed the rule for actions against state governments alleging violations of the family medical leave provision. In those cases, the plaintiff must prove that the government agency’s family leave policy discriminated on the basis of gender.

Because the employee in this case was not alleging a pattern of discrimination, the majority said, sovereign immunity applied. The complaint was dismissed.

Both the majority and the dissenting decision address the reasons Congress passed the FMLA in the first place. All agree that the law was written to address gender inequality issues. The dissent’s opinion, though, is that the family leave provisions were meant to address gender-based discrimination but the self-care leave provision was not.

In the end, the only way for an individual in this employee’s position can seek damages is for Congress to change the law or the Supreme Court to reinterpret the provision. Until then, employees of state governments or state colleges may petition a court only for an injunction, an order that the agency not violate the self-care provision. Any monetary loss cannot be recovered.


Alan Olson writes this web-log to provide helpful information regarding employment law cases. He practices employment law throughout the United States from his offices in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Attorney Olson may be contacted at [email protected] with questions about the information posted here or for advice on FMLA claims.



Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, — S.Ct. —-, 2012 WL 912951 (U.S.,2012), March 20, 2012, via Westlaw

HR Morning, “Part of FMLA voided by the Supreme Court,” Christian Schappel, March 27, 2012


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