The Supreme Court ruled 6–3 that a deaf and blind woman may not claim damages for emotional distress for a physical therapy clinic’s decision to deny her an American Sign Language interpreter.
The court’s opinion in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PPLC, court file 20–219, came on April 28 after the case was argued on Nov. 30, 2021.
The petitioner is Jane Cummings, who has been deaf since birth, is legally blind, and has albinism. The respondent is Premier Rehab Keller PLLC, which operates physical therapy clinics around Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.
Legal blindness, a term used by governments to determine eligibility for benefits, such as disability payments or job training, isn’t the same as total blindness. Very few legally blind people are totally blind. An estimated 1.1 million Americans are legally blind.
Because her disabilities hinder her speech, reading, and writing, Cummings communicates primarily through American Sign Language (ASL).
In 2016, Cummings was referred to Premier for her chronic back pain. Cummings requested an ASL interpreter after explaining that her disabilities prevent her from communicating through other methods such as notes, lipreading, or gestures. Premier refused to provide an interpreter, according to the petition filed with the Supreme Court.
In the lawsuit, Cummings claimed that Premier discriminated against her on the basis of disability by denying her an interpreter, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act—commonly referred to as Obamacare. Because the clinic receives federal funding, federal law required it to accommodate her request, she argued.
Premier’s failure to provide the interpreter was “disability discrimination” that made the clinic liable to her for damages related to her resulting “humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress,” she argued.
A federal district court ruled against Cummings, finding “damages for emotional harm” aren't available in private lawsuits brought to enforce the Rehabilitation Act or the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit sided with the lower court.
In the Supreme Court case, the Biden administration sided with Cummings in arguing for an expansive approach to emotional distress damages, but the high court instead agreed with the two lower courts, finding against her.
Roberts acknowledged federal law forbids discrimination based on protected grounds including disability status, but wrote that it doesn't permit individuals to pursue private lawsuits for emotional distress damages in order to remedy discriminatory acts.
“In order to decide whether emotional distress damages are available under” the statutes considered here, which were enacted under the U.S. Constitution’s spending clause, “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, citing a previous legal precedent.
“If yes, then emotional distress damages are available; if no, they are not.”
When funding recipients such as the clinic enter into a contract with the federal government, damages—whether punitive or based on emotional distress—are not available to a plaintiff, Roberts continued.
Cummings’s approach goes too far and “would treat funding recipients as on notice that they will face not only the usual remedies available in contract actions, but also other unusual, even ‘rare’ remedies.” Funding recipients covered by the federal statutes cited in this case “have not, merely by accepting funds, implicitly consented to liability for punitive damages.”
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The statutes before the court “prohibit intentional invidious discrimination,” Breyer wrote. “That kind of discrimination is particularly likely to cause serious emotional disturbance.”
The majority holding in this case “creates an anomaly” because other antidiscrimination laws allow damages for emotional distress, Breyer wrote.
“It is difficult to square the Court’s holding with the basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve. One such purpose, as I have said, is to vindicate ‘human dignity and not mere economics.’”
“But the Court’s decision today allows victims of discrimination to recover damages only if they can prove that they have suffered economic harm, even though the primary harm inflicted by discrimination is rarely economic. Indeed, victims of intentional discrimination may sometimes suffer profound emotional injury without any attendant pecuniary harms. The Court’s decision today will leave those victims with no remedy at all.”