Law Street Media

Fed. Court Rules No Sovereign Immunity for FMLA “Care-of-Others” Claims

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On October 23, Judge Kristine G. Baker of the Arkansas Eastern District allowed a lawsuit to proceed to trial against the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College (UAPTC) and its administration, involving alleged violations of the Family Medical Leave Act’s (FMLA) leave provisions for those requiring time away from work to care for another family member experiencing a serious illness. The legal action, brought by an employee of UAPTC, involved the plaintiff claiming she was denied a job promotion due to the hiring board knowing she intended to take leave to care for her mother, who was experiencing terminal cancer. The judge ruled against the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, on grounds that sovereign immunity did not apply in cases of FMLA leave involving the care of others. 

Rebecca Sterling, a full-time faculty member at UAPTC, applied for an internal job as a Coordinator of Community Education. Sterling alleged that she made it to the final interview round, but due to her mother’s cancer treatment appointment, had to reschedule the second interview. This rescheduling, asserted the plaintiff, put the hiring board on notice of Sterling’s immediate intention of taking FMLA leave to care for her mother. The plaintiff then proffered that said notice resulted in Sterling being denied the Coordinator position, despite being the most qualified based on the interview scoring. 

Subsequent to receiving the denial of the job, Sterling sued the University and the Board of Trustees under the FMLA asserting that she failed to receive the job in retaliation for her need to care for her mother. The court ruled that the appointment was clearly covered by the FMLA, holding that “Ms. Sterling’s leave was covered under the FMLA’s care-of-others provision, based on the undisputed record evidence before the Court. Under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. A serious health condition is “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves . . . continuing treatment by a health care provider.” Cancer is a serious health condition. Further, doctor’s appointments for the treatment of serious health conditions are covered by the FMLA.”

The defendants stipulated that the leave was protected under the FMLA, however, argued that the University and the Board could not be sued for FMLA violations, per sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The district judge summarily disagreed, ruling that “the Supreme Court has held that Congress validly abrogated state sovereign immunity under the FMLA’s care-of-others provision, which Congress passed pursuant to its powers under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment to remedy unconstitutional gender discrimination.”

The plaintiff seeks promotion to the Coordinator position, an apology, court costs, posting of the lawsuit and verdict, a directive not to retaliate, and attorney’s fees. The plaintiff is represented by Sutter & Gillham, PLLC. 

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