Supreme Court rules 6-3 to reject emotional damages as cause for action in certain anti-discrimination lawsuits

The Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday in a case that questioned the limits of what sort of damages a federally funded entity could be held liable for in instances of discrimination.

By a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that damages for emotional distress could be awarded in federal anti-discrimination lawsuits, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Instead, the majority seemed to limit the types of compensatory damages that could be awarded in such a suit to the most generally typical sort — compensatory payment to cover expected losses or court-ordered fulfillment of services — and ruled out things like punitive damages and emotional distress.

The claim of emotional distress caused by discrimination over disability

The case, known as Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., involved a woman named Jane Cummings who is deaf and legally blind and sought physical therapy treatment at the Premier Rehab facility in the Dallas-Forth Worth area in Texas.

Cummings, who typically communicates via American Sign Language, asked the facility to provide an ASL interpreter during her treatments but was refused, as the facility believed that communication could be effectively achieved through other means.

The woman claimed she had been discriminated against due to her disabilities and filed suit seeking compensatory damages for emotional distress under two healthcare-related anti-discrimination statutes, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act. Her claim was subsequently dismissed by a district court and that dismissal was upheld by an appeals court.

Argument rejected

In a 32-page ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority decision in which he looked at past precedent involving the limits of damages available in suits stemming from legislation involving what is known as the “spending clause” and involving defendants that receive federal funding.

Such cases are treated as being analogous to contract law, with the “contract” being the entity’s agreement to receive federal funds in exchange for being liable to meet certain expectations set forth by the government, including refraining from engaging in discrimination.

However, Roberts concluded that emotional distress damages, much like punitive damages, while not unheard of in contract disputes, were nonetheless exceptions to the general rules, and could not be awarded absent prior “notice” of specific liability from the government or certain extenuating circumstances.

“For the foregoing reasons, we hold that emotional distress damages are not recoverable under the Spending Clause antidiscrimination statutes we consider here. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed,” Roberts wrote.

Concurrence and dissent

SCOTUSblog reported that Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Neil Gorsuch, authored a brief concurring opinion that agreed with Roberts’ determination but called upon Congress to more succinctly detail available remedies in the statutes so that the courts would not have to try to interpret implied or rely on the contract law analogy for future cases.

Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayor, authored a dissent in which he outlined his belief that neither emotional damages nor punitive damages were unusual or rare in contract law, as Roberts had seemed to suggest, and should be applicable in this and other cases involving discrimination by recipients of federal funds.

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