Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Md.

Decision Date20 March 2012
Docket NumberNo. 10–1016.,10–1016.
Citation566 U.S. 30,182 L.Ed.2d 296,132 S.Ct. 1327
Parties Daniel COLEMAN, Petitioner v. COURT OF APPEALS OF MARYLAND et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Michael L. Foreman, State College, PA, for Petitioner.

John B. Howard, Jr., Baltimore, MD, for Respondents.

Michael L. Foreman, Counsel of Record, The Pennsylvania State University, Dickinson School of Law, Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, State College, PA, Edward Smith, Jr., Law Office of Edward Smith, Baltimore, MD, for Petitioner.

Douglas F. Gansler, Attorney General of Maryland, John B. Howard, Jr., Counsel of Record, Deputy Attorney General, William F. Brockman, Acting Solicitor General, Baltimore, MD, for Respondents.

Justice KENNEDY announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice THOMAS, and Justice ALITO joined.

The question in this case is whether a state employee is allowed to recover damages from the state entity that employs him by invoking one of the provisions of a federal statute that, in express terms, seeks to abrogate the States' immunity from suits for damages. The statute in question is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 107 Stat. 6, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq . The provision at issue requires employers, including state employers, to grant unpaid leave for self care for a serious medical condition, provided other statutory requisites are met, particularly requirements that the total amount of annual leave taken under all the Act's provisions does not exceed a stated maximum. § 2612(a)(1)(d). In agreement with every Court of Appeals to have addressed this question, this Court now holds that suits against States under this provision are barred by the States' immunity as sovereigns in our federal system. See 626 F.3d 187 (C.A.4 2010) (case below); Nelson v. University of Tex., 535 F.3d 318 (C.A.5 2008) ; Miles v. Bellfontaine Habilitation Center, 481 F.3d 1106 (C.A.8 2007)(per curiam); Toeller v. Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections, 461 F.3d 871 (C.A.7 2006) ; Touvell v. Ohio Dept. of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, 422 F.3d 392 (C.A.6 2005) ; Brockman v. Wyoming Dept. of Family Servs., 342 F.3d 1159 (C.A.10 2003) ; Laro v. New Hampshire, 259 F.3d 1 (C.A.1 2001).


The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA or Act) entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave per year. An employee may take leave under the FMLA for: (A) "the birth of a son or daughter ... in order to care for such son or daughter," (B) the adoption or foster-care placement of a child with the employee, (C) the care of a "spouse ... son, daughter, or parent" with "a serious health condition," and (D) the employee's own serious health condition when the condition interferes with the employee's ability to perform at work. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1). The Act creates a private right of action to seek both equitable relief and money damages "against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction." § 2617(a)(2). As noted, subparagraph (D) is at issue here.

This Court considered subparagraph (C) in Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721, 123 S.Ct. 1972, 155 L.Ed.2d 953 (2003). Subparagraph (C), like (A) and (B), grants leave for reasons related to family care, and those three provisions are referred to here as the family-care provisions. Hibbs held that Congress could subject the States to suit for violations of subparagraph (C), § 2612(a)(1)(C). That holding rested on evidence that States had family-leave policies that differentiated on the basis of sex and that States administered even neutral family-leave policies in ways that discriminated on the basis of sex. See id., at 730–732, 123 S.Ct. 1972. Subparagraph (D), the self-care provision, was not at issue in Hibbs .


Petitioner Daniel Coleman was employed by the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland. When Coleman requested sick leave, he was informed he would be terminated if he did not resign. Coleman then sued the state court in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland , alleging, inter alia, that his employer violated the FMLA by failing to provide him with self-care leave.

The District Court dismissed the suit on the basis that the Maryland Court of Appeals, as an entity of a sovereign State, was immune from the suit for damages. The parties do not dispute the District Court's ruling that the Maryland Court of Appeals is an entity or instrumentality of the State for purposes of sovereign immunity. The District Court concluded the FMLA's self-care provision did not validly abrogate the State's immunity from suit. App. to Pet. for Cert. 15–20. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that, unlike the family-care provision at issue in Hibbs, the self-care provision was not directed at an identified pattern of gender-based discrimination and was not congruent and proportional to any pattern of sex-based discrimination on the part of States. 626 F.3d 187. Certiorari was granted. 564 U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 3059, 180 L.Ed.2d 884 (2011).


A foundational premise of the federal system is that States, as sovereigns, are immune from suits for damages, save as they elect to waive that defense. See Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 72–73, 120 S.Ct. 631, 145 L.Ed.2d 522 (2000) ; Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 119 S.Ct. 2240, 144 L.Ed.2d 636 (1999). As an exception to this principle, Congress may abrogate the States' immunity from suit pursuant to its powers under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. See, e.g., Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 96 S.Ct. 2666, 49 L.Ed.2d 614 (1976).

Congress must "mak[e] its intention to abrogate unmistakably clear in the language of the statute." Hibbs, 538 U.S., at 726, 123 S.Ct. 1972. On this point the Act does express the clear purpose to abrogate the States' immunity. Ibid. ("The clarity of Congress' intent" to abrogate the States' immunity from suits for damages under the FMLA "is not fairly debatable"). Congress subjected any "public agency" to suit under the FMLA, 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(2), and a "public agency" is defined to include both "the government of a State or political subdivision thereof" and "any agency of ... a State, or a political subdivision of a State," §§ 203(x), 2611(4)(A)(iii).

The question then becomes whether the self-care provision and its attempt to abrogate the States' immunity are a valid exercise of congressional power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 5 grants Congress the power "to enforce" the substantive guarantees of § 1 of the Amendment by "appropriate legislation." The power to enforce " ‘includes the authority both to remedy and to deter violation[s] of rights guaranteed’ " by § 1. See Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 365, 121 S.Ct. 955, 148 L.Ed.2d 866 (2001) (quoting Kimel, supra, at 81, 120 S.Ct. 631). To ensure Congress' enforcement powers under § 5 remain enforcement powers, as envisioned by the ratifiers of the Amendment, rather than powers to redefine the substantive scope of § 1, Congress "must tailor" legislation enacted under § 5" ‘to remedy or prevent’ " "conduct transgressing the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive provisions." Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd. v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627, 639, 119 S.Ct. 2199, 144 L.Ed.2d 575 (1999).

Whether a congressional Act passed under § 5 can impose monetary liability upon States requires an assessment of both the " ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ that Congress intended to remedy," ibid. , and the means Congress adopted to address that evil, see City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 520, 117 S.Ct. 2157, 138 L.Ed.2d 624 (1997). Legislation enacted under § 5 must be targeted at "conduct transgressing the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive provisions." Florida Prepaid,supra, at 639, 119 S.Ct. 2199; see Kimel, supra, at 88, 120 S.Ct. 631 ; City of Boerne, 521 U.S., at 525, 117 S.Ct. 2157. And "[t]here must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end." Id., at 520, 117 S.Ct. 2157.

Under this analysis Hibbs permitted employees to recover damages from States for violations of subparagraph (C). In enacting the FMLA, Congress relied upon evidence of a well-documented pattern of sex-based discrimination in family-leave policies. States had facially discriminatory leave policies that granted longer periods of leave to women than to men. 538 U.S., at 730–731, 123 S.Ct. 1972. States also administered facially neutral family-leave policies in gender-biased ways. Id., at 732, 123 S.Ct. 1972. These practices reflected what Congress found to be a "pervasive sex-role stereotype that caring for family members is women's work," id., at 731, 123 S.Ct. 1972, a stereotype to which even this Court had succumbed in earlier times, id., at 729, 123 S.Ct. 1972. Faced with "the States' record of unconstitutional participation in, and fostering of, gender-based discrimination in the administration of leave benefits," Hibbs concluded that requiring state employers to give all employees the opportunity to take family-care leave was "narrowly targeted at the faultline between work and family—precisely where sex-based overgeneralization has been and remains strongest." Id., at 735, 738, 123 S.Ct. 1972.


The same cannot be said for requiring the States to give all employees the opportunity to take self-care leave. Petitioner advances three arguments for allowing employees to recover damages from States that violate the FMLA's self-care provision: The self-care provision standing alone addresses sex discrimination and sex stereotyping; the provision is a necessary adjunct to the family-care provision sustained in Hibbs ; and the provision eases the burden on single parents. But what the family-care provisions have to support them, the self-care provision lacks, namely evidence of a pattern...

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