On Thursday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a deaf and blind plaintiff was not entitled to an award of emotional distress damages despite her claims that a physical therapy practice violated certain federal anti-discrimination statutes by declining to provide her with a sign language interpreter, as the Wall Street Journal reports.
The controversy before the court arose when plaintiff Jane Cummings filed suit under the theory that because the healthcare provider at issue, Premier Rehab, is a recipient of federal funds, it was legally bound to make a sign language interpreter available to her, pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act as well as the spending clause of the U.S. Constitution.
According to Cummings’ arguments, the refusal of the facility to provide the help she requested was akin to “disability discrimination,” and she was therefore entitled to receive damages for the “humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress” she says she suffered as a result.
Those assertions, however, did not persuade a majority of the justices on the high court, and by a vote of 6-3, the panel rejected the contention that emotional distress damages were recoverable in such a scenario, with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissenting.
Chief Justice John Roberts penned the majority decision, and in it, he noted that while there are federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, they do not provide a private cause of action for emotional distress as a potential remedy for harm suffered by a plaintiff, as Law & Crime explained.
Citing prior Supreme Court precedent on the issue, Roberts wrote, “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? If yes, then emotional damages are available; if no, they are not.”
Roberts emphasized that under the traditional tenets of contract law, punitive and emotional distress damages are not typically awarded, and if Cummings’ argument prevailed, the law would have to “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.”
Authoring a dissent in which Justices Sotomayor and Kagan joined, Justice Breyer argued that while it may be true that emotional harm does not typically result from breaches of commercial contracts, that is not to say that damage awards should be precluded in situations, such as in cases of disability discrimination, when the injuries sustained are almost always emotional, not pecuniary, in nature.