On April 28, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., No. 20-219, holding that damages for emotional distress are not recoverable in private actions brought to enforce the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act.
Petitioner Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, sought physical therapy services from respondent Premier Rehab Kellner. Cummings requested that Premier Rehab provide her an ASL interpreter during appointments. Premier Rehab declined her request, telling Cummings she could communicate with the therapist through other means. Cummings filed a lawsuit against Premier Rehab, alleging that its failure to provide an ASL interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act. It is undisputed that Premier Rehab is subject to these statutes, which apply to federally funded entities, because it receives reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid. The relief Cummings sought included declaratory and injunctive relief, and damages. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas dismissed the complaint, finding that the only injuries Cummings alleged were humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress. In the District Court’s view, such damages are not recoverable. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed, affirming the decision.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, affirmed by a 6-3 vote. The 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.” Analogizing this relationship to a contractual relationship, the Court 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.” Therefore, the Court concluded that because the statutes are silent as to the availability of remedies, and because emotional distress damages are not traditionally available in suits for breach of contract, a recipient of federal funding would not be on notice that it would face liability for emotional distress. The Court held accordingly that emotional distress damages are not recoverable under the Spending Clause antidiscrimination statutes at issue in the case.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Breyer issued a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.