The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that damages for emotional distress are not recoverable in private actions to enforce laws authorized by the Expenditures Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Cummings v Premier Rehab Keller, PLLCn° 20-219 (April 28, 2022).
The Court held that the expense clause legislation, which conditions the receipt of federal funds on compliance with the law, does not allow the recovery of damages for emotional distress, because emotional injuries are generally not recoverable for rupture. of contract.
Laws authorized by the Spending Clause include:
- Rehabilitation Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability)
- Title IX of the Education Amendment Act (Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment on the Basis of Sex in Educational Institutions) of 1972
- Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting racial discrimination in educational institutions)
- Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (prohibiting health care entities from discriminating based on race, gender, disability, or age)
Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, sought physical therapy from Premier Rehab Keller and requested that Premier provide an American Sign Language interpreter during her sessions. Premier declined and suggested that Cummings could communicate with his physical therapist using written notes, lip-reading and gestures. Cummings then requested the services of another physiotherapy provider.
Cummings sued Premier, alleging that its failure to provide an interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, seeking damages, declaratory relief and an injunction. The District Court (Northern District of Texas) dismissed the suit, finding that Cummings’ only compensable injuries were emotional and that damages for emotional distress are not recoverable in private actions under law. on rehabilitation or the Affordable Care Act. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case.
The Court focused on the contractual nature of the anti-discrimination laws of the expense clause. These laws operate on a consent basis, which means that in exchange for receiving federal funds, covered entities agree to comply with federally imposed conditions. The Court emphasized that entities receiving federal funds must voluntarily and knowingly agree to the terms of this contractual relationship and be aware of the penalties to which they may be subject if they breach the contract. The Court held that for a particular remedy to be available in a private action under an expense clause statute, the recipient of the funding must be given notice that they will be liable for such damages because breach of his contract with the federal government.
Previous cases and legislative amendments have clarified that while there is a private right of action under these anti-discrimination statutes at issue, the Court has stated that the remedies available are limited to those generally available in the event of a breach of contract. In Barnes v. Gorman536 US 181 (2002), the Court held that individuals can obtain monetary relief or injunctive relief, but not punitive damages under these anti-discrimination statutes, as punitive damages are not available in breach of contract.
In cummingthe Court ruled that damages for emotional distress were not recoverable in a private action to enforce the expense clause’s anti-discrimination laws because damages for emotional distress are not generally not recoverable in breach of contract actions.
In a dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that emotional harm is an anticipated injury resulting from intentional discrimination and that compensating people for such harm is consistent with the objective of remedies in contract law. Judge Breyer further noted the inconsistency between the Court’s decision and other anti-discrimination laws that allow for the recovery of compensatory damages for emotional distress.
Take away food
This decision is especially important for colleges, universities, school districts, charter schools and health care providers, most of which are recipients of federal funding. Students and patients can no longer obtain damages for emotional distress under these laws, which historically account for a substantial portion of the damages sought in such actions.
The prohibition of damages for emotional distress is limited to the expense clause anti-discrimination laws. The Court’s decision in cumming does not affect federal anti-discrimination laws that are not expense clause laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 USC § 1981. Also, it does not affect neither do state and local anti-discrimination laws.