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In Coleman v. Ct. of Appeals of Maryland, 566 U.S. 30, 132 S.Ct. 1327 (2012), the Supreme Court held that Congress did not validly abrogate States’ sovereign immunity from suits for money damages in enacting FMLA’s self-care provision. Consequently, State employees are not able to sue their State employers for money damages arising from violations of the FMLA’s self-care provision. 

Statutory Background

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 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.” 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(2)

The above categories in subparagraphs (A), (B), and (C) are often referred to as the family-care provisions, and the category in subparagraph (D) as the self-care provision. 

Generally, States have sovereign immunity from suits for money damages unless that immunity has been validly abrogated, either by the State in question or by Congress. In Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721, 730–732 (2003) the Supreme 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.


Coleman worked for the Maryland Court of Appeals, an instrumentality of the State. He brought suit alleging the Maryland Court of Appeals violated the FMLA by denying him self-care leave. The district court dismissed Coleman’s 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.

The Court’s Decision

The Court affirmed, holding that suits against States under the FMLA’s self-care provision are barred by sovereign immunity.

First, the Court observed that under the federal system, States, as sovereigns, are immune from damages suits, unless they waive that defense. 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[.]” Coleman, 132 S.Ct. at 1333, citing Hibbs, 538 U.S. at 726. The Court pointed out that Congress did exactly that in the language of the FMLA. 

But to abrogate the States’ sovereign immunity, Congress also “must tailor” legislation enacted under § 5 to “ ‘remedy or prevent’ ” “conduct transgressing the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive provisions.” 132 S.Ct. at 1333, quoting Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd. v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627, 639 (1999). “There must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.” 132 S.Ct. at 1333-34, quoting City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 520 (1997).

The Court observed that the sex-based discrimination that supported allowing subparagraph (C) suits against States was absent with respect to the self-care provision. Therefore, the Court concluded, Congress had failed to validly abrogate sovereign immunity with respect to the self-care provision. 

Second, the Court rejected Coleman’s various arguments that Congress had validly abrogated sovereign immunity for FMLA self-care suits. 

Coleman contended that the self-care provision addressed sex discrimination and sex stereotyping. But the Court pointed out that the provision, standing alone, was not a valid abrogation of the States’ immunity from suit. At the time Congress enacted the FMLA, there was no evidence of such discrimination or stereotyping in sick-leave policies. Rather, legislative history showed that 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. 

For those reasons, the Court concluded that even though the self-care provision offered some women a benefit by allowing them to take leave for pregnancy-related illnesses, the provision, as a remedy, was 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. 132 S.Ct. at 1334-35.

Coleman also argued that the self-care provision was a necessary companion to the family-care provision sustained in Hibbs. But the Court found that this 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 — was unconvincing and did not comply with the requirements of City of Boerne. Turning again to legislative history, the Court also observed that there were no congressional findings of, or evidence on, how the self-care provision was necessary to the family-care provisions or how it was aimed to reduce employer discrimination against women. 132 S.Ct. at 1335-37.

Finally the Court rejected Coleman’s argument for a valid abrogation based on the fact that the self-care provision helps single parents keep their jobs when they get ill. The Court observed that 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, under the Court’s precedent, “[a]lthough disparate impact may be relevant evidence of … discrimination … such evidence alone is insufficient [to prove a constitutional violation] even where the Fourteenth Amendment subjects state action to strict scrutiny.” 132 S.Ct. at 1337, quoting Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 372 – 373 (2001).

The Court concluded that because it was unlikely that many of the neutral leave policies affected by the self-care provision are unconstitutional, the scope of the self-care provision was out of proportion to its supposed remedial or preventive objectives. 132 S.Ct. at 1337-38. Therefore, sovereign immunity was not abrogated with respect to the FMLA’s self-care provision 


In sum, Coleman held that Congress did not validly abrogate States’ sovereign immunity from suits for money damages in enacting FMLA’s self-care provision. Consequently, State employees are not able to sue their State employers for money damages arising from violations of the FMLA’s self-care provision. 

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