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

Published date03 May 2022
Subject MatterEmployment and HR, Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration, Discrimination, Disability & Sexual Harassment, Trials & Appeals & Compensation
Law FirmLittler Mendelson
AuthorMr David Gartenberg

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...

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