Supreme Court of the United States
(2022) WL 1243658, at *[Page 5-16] No. 20-219
April 28, 2022
Keywords: Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA Title III, Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Affordable Care Act of 2010, Civil Rights Act of 1964, deaf, legally blind, emotional distress, Texas Human Rights Code
Summary and Facts of the Case
Jane Cummings is a deaf and legally blind person who uses American Sign Language (“ASL”). She sued her health care provider, Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C. (Premier), under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Affordable Care Act (ACA), Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Texas Human Rights Code, for allegedly failing to provide an ASL interpreter that Cummings needed to understand her treatment plan.
Cummings came to Premier for physical therapy treatment of her chronic back pain. Cummings asked that an ASL interpreter be available during her appointments, but Premier refused the request, saying written notes, lipreading, and gestures were adequate. Cummings left Premier and received care from another provider. Cummings filed suit in District Court against Premier, saying that its failure to provide an ASL interpreter was disability discrimination in violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 applies in this case because Premier receives federal funds reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid for some of its services. Cummings asked Premier to provide ASL interpreters and to pay for her emotional distress. Cummings asked the court for declaratory relief, an injunction, and damages. In other words, she wanted the court to decide whether she could receive compensation from Premier for her emotional distress due to disability discrimination.
The District Court ruled against Cummings, saying damages for emotional harm are not allowed in private lawsuits filed to enforce the Rehabilitation Act. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the District Court decision. Cummings then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
On April 28, 2022, in a 6-3 ruling the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by ruling that emotional distress damages are not allowable under federal anti-discrimination law.
Issue of the Case
- Can emotional distress damages be recovered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973?
Arguments and Analysis
1. Cummings argued that traditional contract remedies permit the recovery of emotional distress damages.
Cummings argued that the test set out in Barnes (Barnes v. Gorman 536 U.S. 181 (2002)) is whether a certain remedy is traditionally allowed in suits for breach of contract. Cummings also argued that traditional contract remedies include damages for emotional distress under a special rule that allows the payment of such damages where the contract or the breach is so serious that emotional distress is very likely to happen. Cummings also argued that an intentional breach of a promise to stop discrimination frequently results in mental anguish and therefore satisfies this rule.
The Court rejected Cummings’ argument, saying that it is one thing to expect federal funding recipients to know basic, general rules of contract law but another to assume they will know every part of contract law. The Court also said that Cummings’ reading of the contract law analogy risks grabbing legislative power by granting relief when no formal law exists.
First, the Court repeated the contract law analogy used to explain Spending Clause cases, where a recipient of federal funds may be on notice that it is subject to remedies explicitly provided in specific laws and to remedies traditionally available in breach of contract suits. See Barnes v. Gorman, 536 U.S. 181 (2002). In Barnes, the Court ruled that because an exception exists to a general rule against the availability of punitive damages in breach of contract cases, it was not reasonable to expect the funding recipient to be liable for such damages. The Court could find no reason to treat damages for emotional distress different from punitive damages.
Second, the Court notes that, even if it were to allow plaintiffs to be awarded emotional distress damages under rare, exceptional rules, there is no common rule among American jurisdictions that would adequately put the federal funding recipient on notice that it would be liable for such damages. In other words, does state law allow for emotional distress damages, and if so, are they required?
The Court said that there was nothing in contract law to require that emotional distress damages are available for breach of contract cases, so there is no basis to assume that federal funding recipients have clear notice that they would be liable for such damages in a private action. Therefore, the Court ruled that emotional distress damages are not allowed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that emotional distress damages are not allowed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Justice Kavanaugh along with Justice Gorsuch, wrote that the contract law analogy applied by the majority and dissenting opinions is a flawed argument to determine the remedies available for this implied right of action. The Justices said it was up to Congress to decide whether these damages are available in the law, rather than having the Supreme Court decide.
Justice Breyer, along with Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan, wrote that contracts similar to the Rehabilitation Act do allow for the recovery of emotional distress damages, because these damages were traditionally available when the contract or the breach was so serious that emotional disturbance was a particularly likely result.
Justice Breyer also wrote that the majority opinion reads Barnes to suggest that potential funding recipients can only be expected to be aware of basic rules, not exceptional rules, which is a limited approach that was not found in Barnes. Justice Breyer also wrote that the minority was not convinced by the majority’s comparison of punitive damages and emotional distress damages.
Policy and Practice
When an entity that receives federal funds violates conditions of Spending Clause legislation, the wrong done is failure to provide the contractual obligation, in the case of Cummings, treatment for chronic back pain. Compensation by the federally funded entity to the government or a third-party beneficiary is appropriate. However, if a federally funded entity is not aware that their contractual obligations can expose them to liability for emotional distress, limits can be placed on compensation for these damages.
- National Council on Disability: Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC:
Implications and Avenues for Reform
- Supreme Court: Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, PLLC, No. 19-10169 — S.Ct.—-, WL 1243658, at *[Page 5-16] No. 20-219 (2022) [PDF, 32 pages]
- Fifth Circuit: Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, PLLC, No. 19-10169 (2020)
- Barnes v. Gorman, Supreme Court, 257 F. 3d 738, reversed, No. 01–682 (June 17, 2002)