No more tears: Supreme Court rules damages for emotional distress are not recoverable under Title VI, Title IX, the Rehabilitation Act, or the Affordable Care Act


By: Michael M. Hill

In a sea change for antidiscrimination laws, the Supreme Court ruled in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C. that, under certain federal statutes, plaintiffs cannot obtain damages for mental or emotional distress. The statutes implicated by this ruling are Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The plaintiff in Cummings is a deaf and legally blind woman who requested her physical therapist to provide a sign-language interpreter. When the physical therapist declined to do so, the plaintiff filed suit alleging discrimination on the basis of disability under the Rehabilitation Act and the ACA. A federal district court in Texas dismissed her claim, ruling that these statutes do not permit recovery for alleged “humiliation, frustration, emotional distress,” and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Now so has the Supreme Court.

Each of the above four statutes was passed pursuant to the Spending Clause of the Constitution, which essentially gives Congress authority to spend the government’s money. The Court long has held that Congress generally may attach conditions to the receipt of federal funds. The statutes discussed above all prohibit certain recipients of federal funds from discriminating based on certain characteristics: Title VI (race, color, or national origin), Title IX (sex), the Rehabilitation Act (disability), and the ACA (race, color, national origin, sex, and age). Thus, the Court held that the Spending Clause statutes should be analyzed like contractual agreements, by which the recipient of federal funds agrees not to discriminate on the above characteristics in exchange for federal financial assistance. However, since the Spending Clause statutes are like contractual agreements, according to the Court, then the damages recoverable should be the same type generally available for a breach of contract (in which emotional distress damages are unavailable).

The impact of Cummings will be huge, particularly for schools, universities, healthcare entities, construction contractors, and other recipients of federal funding. As the dissent noted, emotional distress is often the largest (and frequently the only) category of damages sought in a claim for unlawful discrimination. Taking such damages off the table should greatly lower the value of current and potential claims under these statutes, as it essentially leaves plaintiffs only with out-of-pocket costs (if any) as a basis for recovery. This outcome should also result in lower jury awards, lower settlement values, and a lower likelihood of such claims being asserted in the first place.

If you have any questions about the impact of this ruling on your organization, please do not hesitate to contact Michael M. Hill at in the Labor & Employment and Government Practice Sections at Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP, or your local FMG attorney.