Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Md.
566 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
Petitioner filed suit, alleging that his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, an instrumentality of the State, violated the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. 2612(a)(1). The provision at issue required employers, including state employers, to grant unpaid leave for self care for a serious medical condition, provided other statutory requisites were met, particularly requirements that the total amount of annual leave taken under all the FMLA's provisions did not exceed a stated maximum. The Court held that suits against States under the self-care provision, section 2612(a)(1), were barred by the States' immunity as sovereigns in the federal system. Therefore, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

COLEMAN v. COURT OF APPEALS OF MARYLAND et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 10–1016. Argued January 11, 2012—Decided March 20, 2012

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) entitles an employee to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave per year for (A) the care of a newborn son or daughter; (B) the adoption or foster-care placement of a child; (C) the care of a spouse, son, daughter, or parent with a serious medical 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 FMLA also creates a private right of action for equitable relief and damages “against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court.” §2617(a)(2). For present purposes, subparagraphs (A), (B), and (C) are referred to as the family-care provisions, and subparagraph (D) as the self-care provision. In Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U. S. 721 −732, this Court held that Congress could subject States to suit for violations of subparagraph (C) based on evidence of family-leave policies that discriminated on the basis of sex.

          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.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

626 F. 3d 187, affirmed.

     Justice Kennedy, joined by The Chief Justice, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito, concluded that suits against States under the self-care provision are barred by sovereign immunity. Pp. 3−12.

     (a) Under the federal system, States, as sovereigns, are immune from damages suits, unless they waive that defense. See, e.g., Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 528 U. S. 62 −73. Congress may also abrogate the States’ immunity pursuant to its powers under §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, but it must make that intention “unmistakably clear in the language of the statute,” Hibbs, supra, at 726. It did so in the FMLA. Congress also “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 . “There must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.” City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U. S. 507 . Pp. 3−5.

     (b) The sex-based discrimination that supported allowing subparagraph (C) suits against States is absent with respect to the self-care provision. Petitioner’s three arguments to the contrary are unpersuasive. Pp. 5–12.

          (1) Petitioner maintains that the self-care provision addresses sex discrimination and sex stereotyping. But the provision, standing alone, is not a valid abrogation of the States’ immunity from suit. At the time the FMLA was enacted, there was no evidence of such discrimination or stereotyping in sick-leave policies. Congress was concerned about the economic burdens imposed by illness-related job loss on employees and their families and about discrimination based on illness, not sex. Although the self-care provision offers some women a benefit by allowing them to take leave for pregnancy-related illnesses, the provision, as a remedy, is not congruent and proportional to any identified constitutional violations. When the FMLA was enacted, Congress had no evidence that States were excluding pregnancy-related illnesses from their leave policies. Pp. 6–7.

          (2) Petitioner also argues that the self-care provision is a necessary adjunct to the family-care provision sustained in Hibbs. But his claim—that the provisions work in tandem to ensure the equal availability of total FMLA leave time to women and men despite their different leave-usage patterns―is unconvincing and does not comply with the requirements of City of Boerne. Also, there are no congressional findings of, or evidence on, how the self-care provision is necessary to the family-care provisions or how it reduces employer discrimination against women. Pp. 8–11.

          (3) Finally, petitioner contends that the self-care provision helps single parents keep their jobs when they get ill. The fact that most single parents happen to be women demonstrates, at most, that the self-care provision was directed at remedying neutral leave restrictions that have a disparate effect on women. However, “[a]lthough disparate impact may be relevant evidence of . . . discrimination . . . such evidence is insufficient [to prove a constitutional violation] even where the Fourteenth Amendment subjects state action to strict scrutiny.” Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U. S. 356 . Because it is unlikely that many of the neutral leave policies affected by the self-care provision are unconstitutional, the scope of the self-care provision is out of proportion to its supposed remedial or preventive objectives. Pp. 11−12.

     Justice Scalia adhered to his view that the Court should abandon the “congruence and proportionality” approach in favor of one that is properly tied to the text of §5, which grants Congress the power “to enforce, by appropriate legislation,” the other provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. Outside the context of racial discrimination, Congress’s §5 power should be limited to the regulation of conduct that itself violates the Fourteenth Amendment and thus would not reach a State’s failure to grant self-care leave to its employees. Pp. 1−2.

     Kennedy, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas and Alito JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer, J., joined, and in which Sotomayor and Kagan, JJ., joined as to all but footnote 1.

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