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High court nixes emotional damages in disability discrimination suit

For the liberal justices, the 6-3 ruling on party lines undermines the entire purpose of anti-discrimination protections. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — A deaf woman is not entitled damages related to emotional distress after a physical therapist refused to provide her with an American Sign Language interpreter, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday. 

The 6-3 ruling fell on ideological lines with the six conservative justices led by Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority. 

Being legally blind as well as deaf since birth, Jane Cummings sought accommodations when she inquired about services at a physical therapy center to treat her chronic back pain. She was referred by her doctor to Premier Rehab in Keller, Texas, — the best clinic in the area — only to learn that they would not provide an American Sign Language interpreter, telling Cummings she'd have to rely on methods like lip reading or writing notes. Cummings was later sent back to Premier after a second doctor referred her because of their highly praised services but was again denied accommodations and therefore unable to receive treatment. 

She filed suit, alleging violations of the Rehabilitation Act both direct and as incorporated by the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama's health care law. The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies. Her suit asked for damages from the “humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress” caused by Premier’s refusal to offer her accommodations for services. 

Premier claimed Cummings did not properly establish her need for an ASL interpreter and moved to dismiss. The district court obliged, finding that damages for emotional distress were unrecoverable. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed while acknowledging that it was breaking with a ruling from the 11th Circuit on the grounds that it disagreed with its findings.

The Supreme Court intervened, holding arguments last fall and using a contract-law analogy with the Spending Clause to come to its ruling Thursday.

“In order to decide whether emotional distress damages are available under the Spending Clause statutes we consider here, we therefore ask a simple question: Would a prospective funding recipient, at the time it ‘engaged in the process of deciding whether [to] accept’ federal dollars, have been aware that it would face such liability,” Roberts wrote. “If yes, then emotional distress damages are available; if no, they are not.” 

The majority found that the statutes at play in this case were silent to which suits could be brought if they were not followed. Roberts said emotional distress is not generally compensable in a contract, just like punitive damages are generally not available for breach of contract. 

“Under Barnes, we therefore cannot treat federal funding recipients as having consented to be subject to damages for emotional distress,” Roberts wrote. “It follows that such damages are not recoverable under the Spending Clause statutes we consider here.” 

The dissent — authored by Justice Stephen Breyer — claims the majority’s ruling leaves victims without any solutions, as harm from discrimination is rarely economic. 

“Indeed, victims of intentional discrimination may sometimes suffer profound emotional injury without any attendant pecuniary harms," Breyer wrote. "The Court’s decision today will leave those victims with no remedy at all.”

Cummings' attorney, Andrew Rozynski with Eisenberg & Baum, was similarly critical of the decision and urged Congress to codify emotional distress damages in relevant statutes.

“The decision overturns 30 years of precedent allowing civil rights litigants under Title VI, Rehab Act, Title IV and the ACA to recover emotional distress damages for discrimination,” Rozynski said in an email. “Emotional harm is the most pervasive and often the only form of damages victims of intentional discrimination experience. We hope this case is a call to action for Congress to codify emotional distress damages in these statutes as a remedy for victims of race, sex, and disability discrimination. Otherwise these important civil rights statutes Congress enacted will have very limited ability to effectuate their purpose.”

Kannon Shanmugam, an attorney from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind representing Premier Rehab, declined to comment on the court’s ruling.

Breyer said the ruling goes against the purposes of anti-discrimination laws.  “It is difficult to square the Court’s holding with the basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve,” Breyer wrote. “One such purpose, as I have said, is to vindicate ‘human dignity and not mere economics.’”

Though he agreed with the analogy used by the majority, Breyer disagrees with its application, saying that he believes contracts similar to these statutes do allow for recovery of emotional distress damages. 

“The Spending Clause statutes before us prohibit intentional invidious discrimination,” the Clinton appointee wrote. “That kind of discrimination is particularly likely to cause serious emotional disturbance. Thus, applying our precedents’ contract analogy, I would hold that victims of intentional violations of these antidiscrimination statutes can recover compensatory damages for emotional suffering.” 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh — joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch — argued in a concurring opinion that the analogy followed by the majority as well as the dissent is an imperfect method of determining remedies. Kavanaugh argues that Congress, not the justices, should be creating new causes of action. 

“Instead of continuing to rely on that imperfect analogy, I would reorient the inquiry to focus on a background interpretive principle rooted in the Constitution’s separation of powers,” the Trump appointee wrote. “Congress, not this Court, creates new causes of action.” 

The ruling against Cummings was one of two the court issued Thursday, with the other involving locomotive engineer Bradley LeDure who hurt his back when he slipped in 2016 during work for Union Pacific Railroad Co. Though the Locomotive Inspection Act requires rail companies to conduct daily inspections on the cars, no inspection occurred for three days in the car where LeDure slipped because it had been on an active track rather than in the dedicated maintenance area. 

In his petition for certiorari, LeDure asked if a locomotive is in use and subject to LIA and safety regulations while making a temporary stop in the railyard. The justices spilt 4-4 on the case, without Justice Amy Coney Barrett to break the tie because of her previous stint on the Seventh Circuit where the case was first appealed.

The split ruling from the Supreme Court will uphold the Seventh Circuit’s ruling. 

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