State Employees Not Entitled to FMLA Leave for Their Own Serious Conditions

Sometimes reading a U.S. Supreme Court case really makes you wonder whether the courts forget to enforce the intent of our anti-discrimination laws. Take the case of Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals 132 U.S. 1327 (March 20, 2012), contrast it with the Supreme Court’s prior holding in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs 538 U.S. 721 (2003), and scratch your head.

Hibbs looked at whether the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applied to and protected state employees and held that it did. The facts in Hibbs involved an employee taking family leave to care for a family member with a serious illness. The Supreme Court held that Congress, when passing the FMLA, intended to let a state worker sue its employer in federal court under FMLA (i.e., it meant to abrogate the Eleventh Amendment ban against suing a state in federal court.) In other words, state employees should be entitled to a family leave just like everyone else.

One would think that Coleman – examining basically the same question – would come out the same. Not so. In Coleman, the Supreme Court held that if the family leave is for the state worker’s own serious health condition, Congress didn’t intend to let the state worker sue. So in Coleman, the Supreme Court says state workers don’t get the same rights to family leave as does everyone else.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is okay to take a family leave to care for a family member but not for yourself. With a family member, perhaps you can find someone else to care for him or her, but for yourself – well – you’re just out of luck.

I don’t want to leave anyone interested in the Court’s rationale for distinguishing the two situations without further explanation. The Court held that since caring for family is seen as – and primarily is – women’s work, it would constitute sex discrimination and that is why the state should allow a state worker to bring a claim. As to caring for oneself, the Court came up with a series of justifications that could provoke eye rolling. Suffice it to say the Court just didn’t want to allow the claim.

My conclusion is one I reach over and over again when examining federal statutes: thank goodness the state of California has its own law to protect employees – here, the California Family Rights Act. Don’t forget to use it – state employees and all!

Jody LeWitter
August 27, 2012