Facts of the Case
Jane Cummings, the petitioner, is deaf and legally blind, and she communicates primarily through American Sign Language (ASL). In 2016, Cummings sought physical therapy services for chronic back pain from Premier Rehab Keller, a company that operates federally funded rehabilitation facilities. Cummings requested that Premier provide her with an ASL interpreter to communicate with her therapist, but it denied her request.
Cummings sued Premier for discrimination due to her disability, which she claimed violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because it caused emotional distress. Both acts were passed using Congress’s spending clause power, which provides a given party with federal funding if it agrees to certain stipulated conditions. A failure to meet such conditions is a breach of contract. Since Premier receives federal funding, knowingly violating the statutes cited by the petitioner would be a breach in their agreement, as by accepting federal funding they must follow anti-discriminatory legislation guidelines.
Previously, it was not clear whether emotional distress damages are recoverable under the Rehabilitation Act, ACA, and other anti-discriminatory spending clause legislations. If a damage is considered recoverable, then the person being harmed is entitled to monetary compensation. This case addresses whether anti-discriminatory legislation established with Congress’s spending clause power include protections against emotional distress.
For Cummings to win her suit, it must be demonstrated that Premier violated the agreement and knew that they exposed themselves to such remedy when accepting funds. Ultimately, the District Court for the Northern District of Texas dismissed Cumming’s case, claiming that the latter requirement was not met, and Premier was not aware it was liable to suits on the basis of emotional distress damages. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Cummings then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in November 2021.
The Court determined that the Rehabilitation Act and the ACA are silent on whether emotional distress damages are recoverable in a private suit. The Court treated the agreement made by Premier as a standard contract, so Premier was aware of potential damages that they may be liable to pay compensation for within their contract. Therefore, the arguments centered on whether emotional distress damages are traditionally recoverable due to a breach of contract.
Kannon Shanmugam argued on behalf of Premier that there is no standard rule that makes emotional distress damages recoverable for breach of contract. Arguments on behalf of Cummings and the United States government in support of Cummings claimed that emotional distress damages have been recoverable in cases that are analogous to anti-discrimination statutes. If it is true that emotional distress damages have been recoverable in past similar cases, then it can be said that emotional distress damages are foreseeable and need not be explicitly outlined. Therefore, Cummings’ suit would be valid, as she claims damages that are typically available to be recovered.
Justice John Roberts authored the 6-3 majority opinion in April 2022. Roberts ruled in favor of Premier claiming that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private suit in either the Rehabilitation Act or the ACA. The Court held that emotional distress damages are not typically included in spending clause contracts, so they are not recoverable under the statutes in this suit. This decision makes the remedies available to private plaintiffs much more strict and narrow in scope, establishing that it must be explicitly mentioned in the legislation or standardly applied in all contract cases.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored a concurring opinion rooted in the Separation of Powers in the U.S. government. Kavanaugh claimed that Congress alone has the power to create new causes of actions. Therefore, Congress should also be the only branch of government capable of extending those actions and available remedies.
Justice Stephen Breyer authored a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. The dissenting justices claimed that contracts analogous to these anti-discrimination statutes allowed for the recovery of emotional distress damages because such damages are often associated with overt and unjust discrimination.
The decision in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C. tightened the potential recoverable damages for spending clause anti-discrimination legislations as it claims that they must be directly mentioned in the legislation or considered standard practice. Discrimination often manifests itself as emotional damage in the discriminated person, so not being able to recover damages from the discriminator provides a major barrier to compensation.
Additionally, the decision sets a precedent that may extend to other spending clause anti-discriminatory statutes, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits race-based discrimination and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex-based discrimination. If the precedent is upheld in the future, emotional damages may not be recoverable for any anti-discriminatory statutes established through the spending clause. This would leave entire groups of people vulnerable to discrimination-based emotional harm with no line of recourse.
Overall, the exclusion of emotional distress damages from recovery will impact multiple anti-discrimination statutes, limiting the avenues that people have to rectify cases of emotional distress due to discrimination. Additionally, the decision sets a precedent to exclude other damages that are not explicitly mentioned in the statutes, giving the Court more power to deny recovery of many other discrimination-based damages.
James Gaspar is from Oak Park, CA, studying Biology and Philosophy with a certificate in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.