Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Constitutional Law
  • Date Filed: January 11, 2012
  • Case #: 10-1016
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: 626 F.3d 187 (4th Cir. 2010)
  • Full Text Opinion

Whether Congress constitutionally abrogated states' Eleventh Amendment immunity when it passed the self-care leave provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Daniel Coleman, an African-American former Maryland Court of Appeals employee filed suit against his former employer for various Title VII discrimination, retaliation and FMLA claims. The district court dismissed Coleman’s claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(6) and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Both courts held—as relevant to Coleman’s FMLA claims—that although Congress “unequivocally declare[d] its intent to abrogate” the states’ immunity, it did so unlawfully, because abrogation must be done “pursuant to a valid exercise of its power.”

Congress enacted FMLA pursuant to the 14th Amendment. The Fourth Circuit recognized that although Congress may enact “prophylactic legislation prohibiting conduct that is not itself unconstitutional” it may not substantively redefine 14th Amendment protections. As a result, abrogating states’ immunity is only valid when Congress enacts legislation that is “congruent and proportional” between the injury to be prevented and the means adopted to that end. According to the Fourth Circuit, when Congress enacted FMLA’s “self-care” provision it did so with the intent to “alleviate the economic effect on employees and their families of job loss due to sickness and to protect employees from being discriminated against because of their serious health problems.” Thus, the Fourth Circuit held that because Congress, acting pursuant to the 14th Amendment, enacted the self-care provision in the absence of any attempt to remedy systematic gender discrimination, it failed the congruence-and-proportionality test.

Before the Supreme Court, Coleman argues that the Fourth Circuit erred in failing to find that Congress acted within its expansive powers under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment in passing the FMLA as a targeted response to gender discrimination. The Maryland Court of Appeals responds that the Fourth Circuit was correct in finding that the self-care provision fails the congruence-and-proportionality test because the “precise scope” of the constitutional right at issue here is an equal protection right to be free from irrational state employment discrimination based on a medical condition.

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