Supreme Court Holds Damages For Emotional Distress Are Not Recoverable In Private Actions Brought To Enforce The Rehabilitation Act And Affordable Care Act

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jun 02, 2022

Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, sought physical therapy services from Premier Rehab Keller (Premier Rehab) to treat her back pain. Cummings asked Premier Rehab to provide an American Sign Language interpreter at her appointments.  Premier Rehab declined her request and told Cummings that the therapist could communicate with her through other means, such as using written notes, lip reading, gesturing; or Cummings could provide her own ASL interpreter.  Cummings sued Premier Rehab seeking damages and other relief, alleging that its failure to provide her with an ASL interpreter constituted discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Affordable Care Act.  Premier Rehab is subject to these statutes because it receives federal monetary reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid for its services.

The trial court dismissed Cummings’ complaint.  It concluded that the only compensable injuries allegedly caused by Premier Rehab were emotional in nature, and that damages for emotional harm are not recoverable in private actions brought to enforce the statutes Cummings relied on.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court.  It held that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce either the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Affordable Care Act.  Cummings appealed.

On appeal, the United States Supreme Court addressed whether emotional distress damages are available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the statutes that incorporate its remedies for victims of discrimination, such as the Rehabilitation Act and Affordable Care Act.  The Supreme Court found that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce either the Rehabilitation Act or the Affordable Care Act.

The Supreme Court noted that the Rehabilitation Act and Affordable Care Act were passed pursuant to the Spending Clause of the Constitution, under which Congress has broad power to set the terms on which it disburses federal funds, such as prohibiting recipients from discrimination on the basis of disability.  The Supreme Court stated that “whether a remedy qualifies as appropriate relief must be informed by the way the Spending Clause statutes operate: by conditioning an offer of federal funding on a promise by the recipient not to discriminate in what amounts essentially to a contract between the government and the recipient of funds.”  The Supreme Court analogized the Spending Clause legislation with an implied private right of action under a contractual relationship, and concluded that a “particular remedy is thus appropriate relief in a private Spending Clause action only if the funding recipient is on notice that, by accepting federal funding, it exposes itself to liability of that nature.”  Where a statute contains no express remedies, the Supreme Court held that recovery is limited to other types of remedies that are traditionally available under a breach of contract.  The Supreme Court acknowledged “it is hornbook law that emotional distress is generally not compensable in contract.”  Accordingly, the Supreme Court held emotional distress damages are unavailable under the Rehabilitation Act and Affordable Care Act.

Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, PLLC (2022) 596 U.S. ____.

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