The Fourth Circuit recently made an unexpected (by me, at least) ruling on the Family and Medical Leave Act in Coleman v. Md. Ct. of App. It rejected claims (including race and retaliation) by an employee of the Maryland court system. The employee claimed that his termination was motivated in part by his requesting to take time off for an illness. He had been employed long enough to be covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, and of course the state has more than 50 employees. But the Fourth Circuit decided that Congress went too far in making states liable under the federal law. Under the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, states are immune from suit in federal court, with many exceptions. One exception is when Congress has the power under the United States Constitution to trump the state’s interest.
In the case of the FMLA, Congress enacted the law in large part to protect the jobs of women, who are disproportionately the caregivers to young, older, and sick relatives. But in the case of self-care, the Circuit Court decided, there was no such attempt to combat discrimination. Instead, the goal was to ease economic hardship caused by illness.
The Fourth Circuit had earlier held that no part of the FMLA could be applied to states. That decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003, in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs. The Supreme Court could revisit this issue if different circuits issue inconsistent opinions.