Photo credit to the United States Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case contesting provisions in the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires that employers allow their workers to take unpaid leaves for medical reasons.

The decision in the case, Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, will affect millions of state workers, who hold the same rights as private employees under the act.

The family leave law entitles those working for companies covered by the act up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for serious medical reasons. These include the birth of a child, adoption of a child, care of a spouse or other family member with a serious medical condition, or a serious condition that makes the employee unable to work. The last reason – the self-care provision – is at the heart of the dispute.

An estimated 6.1 million public and private sector workers take leave under provisions of the law each year.

Daniel Coleman, 59, worked for the Maryland court system in 2007 when his doctor prescribed two weeks of bed rest to treat worsening hypertension and diabetes. Coleman requested leave under the self-care provision of the leave act. This section grants workers the same 12 weeks of leave to care for their own medical issues.

In a statement made before Wednesday’s hearing, Coleman’s attorney, Michael Foreman, said the self-care provision was necessary to make the act fair for both men and women. He said the act was initially written as a response to gender discrimination in the workplace.

“If you cannot take leave to take care of yourself, the family care really becomes meaningless,” said Foreman.

Foreman echoed his sentiment in Wednesday’s oral argument, calling self-care a “stand-alone provision.”

“Congress passed this bill as a comprehensive response,” said Foreman. “[It] addresses the need of all workers.”

Within hours of seeking leave, Coleman received a phone call asking for his resignation, or he would be fired. Coleman alleges that he was terminated after refusing to resign.

Lower courts rejected his lawsuit, citing the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides sovereign immunity for states. The Maryland Court of Appeals confirmed the state immunity. Coleman’s team argued that Congress, under the Constitution, can take away that immunity – and did in the family leave law.

The National Partnership for Women & Families and a dozen other workers’ and civil rights groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Coleman’s behalf. A similar brief came from a group of current and former members of Congress, many of whom drafted the original legislation.

Judith L. Lichtman, senior adviser for the partnership, was chief lobbyist for the family leave act before its passage. She said the law was necessary at the outset to assert women’s rights in the workplace.

In his argument for the plaintiff, attorney Foreman pursued what Justice Elena Kagan called an “analogous agreement,” seeking gender-neutral sick leave. Foreman argued that Congress made the language of the self-care provision clear, intending to minimize the potential for discrimination “on two separate levels.”

Self-care as a provision not only relates to gender differences, but economic effects as well, a point raised by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“There appears to have been a dual motive for this provision,” said Justice Sotomayor. “Part of the bill was gender-related and part of the bill was disability-related. How do we judge that kind of bill?”

Defense attorney John B. Howard Jr. argued that Coleman’s situation should fall under disability laws.

“There certainly is discussion of pregnancy as a type of illness,” said Howard. “I think one has to define [Coleman’s] right as ‘disability.’”

Only a handful of decisions concerning the family leave law have reached the Supreme Court since Congress approved it in 1993.

Toward the end of the hearing, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued the law was one package.

“I don’t think you can slice off [one section on self care] from the other three. You can’t reserve leave for the one sex.”