Breaking SCOTUS News: Supreme Court Bans Recovery for Emotional Damages for Four Federal Discrimination Statutes

Earlier today (April 27, 2022), the United States Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, upheld the dismissal of a disability discrimination case between Texas physical therapy practice, Premier Rehab Keller, and Jane Cummings, a legally blind and deaf patient of the practice. The Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that Cummings could not sue for emotional damages under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) or the Rehabilitation Act, two federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on disability.  It also recognized that such claims were not available under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Cummings, a Texas woman who is legally blind and deaf, communicates primarily in American Sign Language.  In 2016, she sought physical therapy for chronic back pain from Keller, a physical therapy facility in Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Keller informed Cummings that the practice would not provide a sign language interpreter for her appointments, suggesting that she could communicate with the therapist by physical notes, lipreading, and gestures.

Cummings filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which dismissed her claims. The federal district judge found that because Ms. Cummings injuries were limited to “humiliation, frustration and emotional distress,” she could not maintain a claim because the statutes do not provide recovery for emotional damages. Cummings appealed the ruling to the United Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which upheld the district court’s ruling.  The Supreme Court agreed to review the Fifth Circuit decision.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts today ruled that the two laws were akin to contracts:  In exchange for federal money, businesses agree not to discriminate and to be held accountable if they do.  He noted that this was also true for Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars discrimination based on sex.

Given the nature of the claims asserted, he explained, businesses receiving federal funding could not have anticipated that they would be liable for emotional damages.  Because the prohibition on discrimination is a contract term, when they discriminate in violation of that term, the claim is analogous to a breach of contract.  Because people suing for breach of contract cannot recover damages for emotional harm, people suing business that accept federal funds and grants cannot recovery those damages either.  

After all, the Chief Justice wrote, “when considering whether to accept federal funds, a prospective recipient would surely wonder not only what rules it must follow, but also what sort of penalties might be on the table.”  The Supreme Court used similar reasoning in 2002 in Barnes v. Gorman, ruling that such federal laws did not allow suits for punitive damages because that category of damages were not typically available in lawsuits for breach of contract.

In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, urged that the specific discrimination at hand “is particularly likely to cause serious emotional disturbance.” Justice Breyer asserted that it is not fair for victims of discrimination to only be capable to recover economic damages since damages of discrimination are rarely economic.  This conundrum, unfortunately, now would need to be addressed through an amendment of the four statutes specifically to provide for emotional damages (and potentially punitive damages), a challenging task given the current composition of the Senate.