In its first FMLA opinion, the Texas Supreme Court held that agencies of the State of Texas cannot be sued for FMLA violations arising out of an employee’s FMLA leave taken for his own serious health condition. In University of Texas at El Paso v. Herrera, the Supreme Court of Texas held that, unlike the family care provisions of the FMLA, Congress did not abrogate Texas’ sovereign immunity for violations of the FMLA self-care provision and therefore the State of Texas cannot be sued for such violations.
The underlying facts are as follows. Alfredo Herrera was an HVAC technician for the University of Texas at El Paso. Herrera sustained a work-related injury to his elbow requiring a nine month leave of absence. One month after he returned to work, his employment was terminated. He sued alleging that he was terminated for taking personal medical leave under the self-care provision of the FMLA and exercising his First Amendment rights by complaining about unsafe work conditions. UTEP challenged the court’s jurisdiction over the claim asserting that it was barred by sovereign immunity. The trial court and court of appeals found that jurisdiction existed.
Acknowledging that the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress effectively abrogated state sovereign immunity for the FMLA family-care provisions, the Texas Supreme Court found that there was no evidence in the FMLA legislative history or Congressional findings that women took more personal medical leave (or were thought to do so) than men. Because, according to the Court, the self-care provisions of the FMLA were not targeted at an identified pattern of gender discrimination on the part of the States, Congress overreached when it attempted to apply the self-care leave provisions to the states.
While the opinion analyzes complex issues of state sovereignty and Congressional findings, the simple take away from Herrera is that the State of Texas cannot be sued for FMLA violations arising out of an employee’s need for leave for self care.