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State Workers Can Request Job Back, Not Damages for FMLA Self-Care Leave Violations

The Supreme Court of the United States decided on Tuesday that a former state employee cannot sue his employer for money damages even though he may have been fired in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under the protections of the FMLA, employees are allowed to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid time off work for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for themselves or a family member recovering from medical condition.

Daniel Coleman worked for the Administrative Offices of the Courts in Maryland. He requested 10 days of medical leave in 2007 because he was suffering from diabetes and hypertension but was told by his employer that he would be fired for taking leave if he did not resign first.

Coleman was indeed fired and brought a suit against his employer for violation of the FMLA and retaliation for taking FMLA leave resulting in wrongful termination. Despite Congress allowing suits against public agencies in the express language of the FMLA, Coleman’s claim for money damages was rejected by the trial court, appellate court and finally by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Coleman’s employer did not contest whether or not it did in fact violate the FMLA’s self-care provision, only that it was not liable for money damages. Coleman could have requested the Court order his employer to reinstate him to his previous position.

The Supreme Court held that the provision of the FMLA that allows an individual to take unpaid time off of work without fear of losing his or her job does not remedy sex-based discrimination in the workplace and so the state was immune from suits for money damages. The Court had previously held that the violation of the family-care provision by a State could result in money damages to an employee because that provision does address the sex-based discrimination in the workplace.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, “States Shielded From Medical-Leave Suits by U.S. High Court,” Greg Stohr, March 21, 2012

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