Court rules against plaintiff seeking emotional distress damages for discrimination

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The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 6-3 against a plaintiff seeking emotional distress damages for alleged violations of certain federal anti-discrimination laws. 

Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, sued Premier Rehab (a Texas rehabilitation facility that receives federal funding) for discriminating based on disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act. Congress passed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 1557 of the ACA — the provisions Cummings invoked — pursuant to Congress’ powers under the Constitution’s spending clause. With spending clause legislation, the federal government provides funds in exchange for the funding recipient’s adherence to various conditions.

The Supreme Court has previously held that private plaintiffs may secure a particular judicial remedy for the violation of spending clause statutes only if the defendant that received federal funds is on notice that it exposes itself to that remedy by accepting the funds. Further, the court has analogized spending clause legislation to a contract and has held that funding recipients are on notice that they are subject to those remedies traditionally available in suits for breach of contract.  

In Thursday’s ruling in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC, the court applied the contract-law inquiry to hold that Cummings could not recover damages for emotional distress. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts (joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett), the court held that emotional distress damages are not traditionally available in suits for breach of contract, and so are not recoverable under the spending clause anti-discrimination statutes at issue in Cummings’ suit.

Kavanaugh wrote a short concurrence, joined by Gorsuch, focused on the risks of judicial extension of remedies for implied causes of action. Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He argued that emotional distress damages were traditionally available when a contractual breach was particularly likely to result in serious emotional disturbance, and that invidious discrimination, of the kind prohibited by the statutes Cummings invoked, is especially prone to cause such disturbance.

Check back soon for in-depth analysis of the opinion.



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