WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court wrestled Wednesday with how a federal law that grants workers time off for family and medical reasons applies to state government workers in a case that could affect millions of them.
The case argued before the high court was brought by a Maryland state employee who says he was wrongly fired for trying to take a 10-day medical leave to deal with hypertension and diabetes. But Daniel Coleman's damage suit against state officials for a reported $1.1 million was thrown out.
The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act gives employees like Coleman the right to take up to three months of unpaid medical leave in certain circumstances. Those include caring for a new baby or an ill family member and also to deal with a serious medical issue of their own. But the state of Maryland and Coleman disagree about the remedy workers should have if a state violates the part of the law that lets employees take leave for their own health issue.
Coleman argues that he and some 5 million state workers like him should be able to sue for money damages in such an instance. Maryland and 26 other states disagree. They acknowledge they're bound by the Family and Medical Leave Act and must grant time off. But the states say that unlike private employers, states are protected by the Constitution from monetary damage suits that could drain a state's finances.
Maryland argued that employees like Coleman should instead obtain a court order directing the state to comply with the federal act and possibly reinstating them to their job. But Coleman's lawyer, Penn State professor Michael Foreman, argued that without the threat of money damages, states wouldn't be very motivated to comply.
Two lower courts have already ruled against Coleman, and on Wednesday, some justices appeared ready to agree. Justice Samuel Alito seemed to suggest Coleman still might be able to get his job back even if he couldn't collect money damages. And Chief Justice John Roberts appeared concerned Congress didn't specifically intend to allow lawsuits like Coleman's.
But other justices seemed inclined to let Coleman sue for money damages; they suggested the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act were a package deal. The court previously found in a 2003 case that state employees denied leave to take care of an ill family member could sue for money. Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both of whom voted for that result, suggested the Coleman case is similar.
"It's all part of one package which is designed to increase job security for women and increase protection for their families," Ginsburg said at one point.
Coleman, a 59-year-old resident of Baltimore who watched Wednesday's argument, got choked up speaking about the case's impact.
"Millions of state workers, their stability hangs in the balance," he said afterward outside the court building.
Jessica Gresko can be reached at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko.