Under the U.S. Constitution, states are sovereign entities immune from lawsuits for damages unless they either waive this right or have their sovereignty pierced by federal legislation based on the equal protection provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This background is important when considering the recent Supreme Decision in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, which held that states are immune from employee lawsuits based on the self-care provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The reasoning behind this decision was that the FMLA as drafted by Congress does not remedy any discrimination when it comes to the self-care provision for employees who are ill.

The other provisions of the FMLA, which provide unpaid leave for employees to care for family members and for the adoption or birth of a child, clearly are intended to correct sex discrimination in the workplace, the 5-4 majority of Justices held. Not so with self-care, they concluded.

This does not mean states no longer need to honor the self-care provision, just that they cannot be sued by their employees for damages under this provision — but they may be sued for injunctive relief such as reinstatement to their previous positions. Further, since many states have their own FMLA statutes, governments in those states may be open to lawsuits depending on how their laws were written.

The Supreme Court decision basically affirmed prior court rulings in its own decision:

Petitioner filed suit, alleging that his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, an instrumentality of the State, violated the FMLA by denying him self-care leave. The Federal District Court dismissed the suit on sovereign immunity grounds. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that unlike the family-care provision 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.