On April 28, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 6-3 that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce the Rehabilitation Act or the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC, 596 U.S.____(2022), was initiated by plaintiff Jane Cummings, a deaf and legally blind woman. Ms. Cummings requested an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at her physical therapy sessions, but Premier Rehab declined the request, advising the therapist could communicate with Cummings through other means such as in writing and with gestures. Ms. Cummings went elsewhere for her physical therapy, and then sued under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act action, seeking damages, alleging that Premier’s failure to provide an ASL interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehab Act and ACA. There was no dispute that the defendant was properly susceptible of being sued because they received federal money in the form of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
The district court determined the only compensable injuries allegedly caused by Premier Rehab were emotional in nature, i.e., humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress, and held that damages for emotional harm are not recoverable in private actions brought to enforce either statute and dismissed the complaint. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
The Supreme Court affirmed, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Breyer authored a dissent, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.
The Court followed its prior reasoning considering damages available in Spending Clause derived causes of action, by considering them as if they were implied contracts between the federal government and recipients of federal funds, as the statutes expressly provide that recipients of federal funds are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of a protected class. Pursuant to this analogy, federal funding recipients may be considered on notice that they are subject to the remedies explicitly provided in the relevant legislation and the remedies traditionally available in suits for breach of contract. To this end, the Court concluded that because the relevant statutes are silent as to the availability of remedies and emotional distress damages are not traditionally available in suits for breach of contract, a recipient of federal funding would not be on notice that it would face liability for emotional distress and, therefore, such damages are not recoverable in private actions to enforce the Rehab Act and/or ACA. The Court acknowledged that, while there is some jurisprudence permitting emotional distress damages “where a breach might be particularly likely to cause suffering of that kind,” this represented a minority exception to the traditional rule and concluded that it would be unreasonable to consider an acceptance of such damages to be clearly expected by a recipient of federal funds.
Justice Breyers’ dissenting opinion contended that, in cases involving intentional discrimination, emotional distress damages would properly be considered an acceptable form of damages in breach of contract actions, and should be permitted, essentially disagreeing with the majority’s interpretation of what damages are traditionally available in breach of contract actions.
Comment: This holding is limited to causes of action which are derived from the Spending Clause, and it does not apply to similar causes of action, such as claims brought under Americans with Disabilities Act and/or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because in those statutes Congress expressly included emotional distress type damages as available remedies. It would be expected, however, that the same reasoning would apply to other Spending Clause-derived causes of action, such as claims brought under Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination by educational institutions which receive federal funding.