Maryland Medical Leave Case Heads To High Court

Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Steve Fermier and Associated Press

A man who sued the state of Maryland after allegedly being fired for trying to take a 10-day medical leave from his state job will have his case heard Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the outcome could affect whether state workers nationwide can sue in similar situations.

Daniel Coleman was fired from his job overseeing contracts for the Maryland court system in 2007. He says he was fired after asking for time off for doctor-ordered bed rest to deal with hypertension and diabetes. Under a law passed by Congress and enacted in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees can take up to three months of unpaid leave for certain reasons, including a serious health issue. After being fired, Coleman sued, claiming a violation of the leave law and discrimination, a claim that was later thrown out by a lower court. He asked Maryland to pay him a reported $1.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

But lawyers for Maryland argue Congress was wrong to give employees like Coleman the ability to sue state employers for money damages. Unlike private employers, states are generally exempt from such lawsuits. Two lower courts have agreed with Maryland that Congress overstepped its authority, and 26 other states are also supporting the state’s arguments.

The states, including Texas and Arizona, acknowledge that the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to them. As a result, they must let employees take unpaid leave for events such as the birth of a child, caring for an ill relative or to deal with a serious illness of their own. But the states say if they make an error, the remedy shouldn’t be money damages that drain the state’s resources. They argue that goes against the U.S. Constitution. Instead, the remedy for the employee should include being able to go to court to get his job back. And, depending on the state, the employee might also be able to get back pay under state law.

The National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit that supports Coleman, says the outcome of the case could affect more than five million employees who work for state governments nationwide.

The Supreme Court last considered a provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 2003. In that case, the justices, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, found that state employees could sue for money damages if their employer violated a provision of the law that allows time off to care for a family member.

Maryland and other states argue that the difference is that 2003 case involved a part of the law enacted in response to a history of gender discrimination by states. The current case involves personal leave, which doesn’t have that history, they say. Coleman’s lawyers disagree.

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