Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., No. 20-219 (2022)
On April 28, 2022, the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., No. 20-219, holding that a plaintiff may not recover damages for emotional distress in actions arising out of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act.
The case revolved around the actions of Premier Rehab Keller, a physical therapy provider in Texas. Petitioner Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, sued Premier Rehab for declining to provide a sign language interpreter at her appointments. Cummings alleged that Premier Rehab’s actions amounted to discrimination on the basis of disability under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act.
The District Court held that damages for emotional harm are not recoverable under those statutes. Because Cummings’ alleged injuries were exclusively emotional in nature, the District Court dismissed the case. The Fifth Circuit affirmed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Supreme Court went back to the basics. The Spending Clause of the Constitution, the Court explained, empowers Congress to set the terms on which it disburses federal funds. When a party accepts the money, they consent to the government’s terms and conditions. In other words, a recipient of federal funds enters into a “contract” with the Federal Government.
Several notable antidiscrimination statutes operate in this contract manner: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Affordable Care Act. In practice, the Federal Government doles out funds to recipients who agree not to discriminate based on race, sex, religion, disability, etc.
Unfortunately, the statutes are silent as to remedies available to a plaintiff. If you’ve been discriminated against, what can you recover? Emotional distress damages? Punitive damages?
Here, Ms. Cummings sought to recover emotional distress damages for the discrimination she alleged. But the Court worried about whether Premier Rehab—or any similarly situated entity—knew that they could be liable for emotional damages when they accepted the federal funding. The Court distilled the issue down to a single question: “Would a prospective funding recipient, at the time it engaged in the process of deciding to accept federal dollars, have been aware that it would face such liability?” Id. at *5.
The Court held that Premier Rehab was not aware of potential liability in the form of emotional damages. The Court looked to prior cases that held, logically, that only contract-based remedies are available for these “contract-based” laws—namely, compensatory damages and injunctions.
Because emotional distress damages are almost never recoverable in a contract action, the Court reasoned Premier Rehab could not have been on notice of possible emotional distress liability when it accepted federal dollars. By extension, no recipient subject to the Rehabilitation Act or the Affordable Care Act can be held liable for emotional distress damages.
While the Court’s ruling expressly applies to actions brought pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, the Court signaled its intent to apply the same reasoning to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin) and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting sex-based discrimination). See id. at *7 (“It follows that such damages are not recoverable under the Spending Clause statutes we consider here”). This may be the closest thing to an invitation the Supreme Court will issue. In any event, this ruling represents a victory for public and private entities who are often subjected to padded claims involving emotional distress.
Andrew Will is an Associate in the firm’s Labor, Employment, and Education Group. Mr. Will graduated cum laude from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 2021. While in law school, he served as an Associate Comments Editor for the University of Baltimore Law Review and was inducted into the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society. Prior to joining PK Law, Mr. Will worked as a law clerk for the Maryland Office of the Attorney General and aided the Honorable George L. Russell III as a judicial intern in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. He can be contacted at 410-832-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.