U.S. Supreme Court Excludes Emotional Distress Damages from Remedies Available Under Rehabilitation Act and Affordable Care Act

On April 28, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the scope of damages available under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce either the Rehab Act or the ACA.

The case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., involved a claim by an individual who is deaf and blind. The plaintiff had brought suit under the Rehab Act and ACA alleging that the defendant, a physical therapy provider, refused to provide an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at her physical therapy sessions.1 The plaintiff alleged that failing to provide an interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of her disability under the Rehab Act and ACA.

The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint on grounds that she claimed only emotional distress damages, which were not available under the Rehab Act and ACA. The Fifth Circuit affirmed on similar grounds. In so holding, however, the Fifth Circuit created a split with the Eleventh Circuit, which had squarely held that emotional distress damages are available under the Rehab Act.2

The Supreme Court sided with the Fifth Circuit. It reasoned that statutes like the Rehab Act and ACA are akin to contracts between the federal government and recipients of federal funds. The statutes expressly provide that recipients of such funds cannot discriminate on the basis of certain protected classes. The Court had previously held that this created an implied private right of action to enforce such protections. Absent clear language in the statutes providing for emotional distress damages, however, the Court held that the damages available to plaintiffs in such claims must be limited to those available under contract law. Emotional distress damages, the majority concluded, are generally not compensable for breach of a contract, and thus are not available as remedies for a Rehab Act or ACA claim.

By contrast, emotional distress damages are specifically made available by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, so the availability of those remedies is not disturbed by the Court’s holding in Cummings. See 42 U. S. C. §1981a(b)(3) (expressly providing for compensatory damages, including damages for “emotional pain, suffering,” and “mental anguish” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act). But litigants who bring suit under the Rehab Act and ACA may secure injunctive or monetary relief only; compensatory damages like emotional distress and punitive damages3 are no longer available.4

See Footnotes

1 Premier Rehab was subject to these statutes because it receives federal financial assistance in the form of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

2 See Sheely v. MRI Radiology Network, P.A., 505 F.3d 1173 (11th Cir. 2007).

3 The Court had previously held that punitive damages are unavailable under the Rehab Act. See Barnes v. Gorman, 536 U. S. 181, 185, 187 (2002).

4 While not squarely at issue in the case, the reasoning of Cummings would likely mean that claims under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which governs claims by a student who experiences sex discrimination in a college or university setting, will likely be treated the same as claims under the Rehab Act and ACA, meaning that emotional distress damages may no longer be available to plaintiffs suing under Title IX as well.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.