Supreme Court rules against plaintiff in emotional distress case


Private plaintiffs cannot be reimbursed for emotional distress damages under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind and communicates primarily through American Sign Language, sought physical therapy services from Keller, Texas-based Premier Rehab Keller P.L.L.C., according to the 6-3 ruling Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court in Jane Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller P.L.L.C. All six conservative justices voted against the plaintiff.

Ms. Cummings asked Premier Rehab to provide an ASL interpreter at her appointments, but it refused, telling her she could communicate with the therapist using written notes, lip reading or gesturing, the ruling said.

Ms. Cummings obtained care from another provider, then filed suit against Premier Rehab alleging discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, statutes Premier Rehab is subject to because it receives reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid.

The U.S. District Court in Fort Worth, Texas, dismissed the complaint, stating “the only compensable injuries that Cummings alleged Premier caused were ‘humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress’” and damages for emotional harm are not recoverable under either law. The decision was affirmed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

“Although it is ‘beyond dispute that private individuals may sue to enforce the antidiscrimination statutes we consider here, ‘it is less clear what remedies are available in such a suit,’” the majority Supreme Court opinion said, citing its 2002 ruling in Barnes v. Gorman.

The Supreme Court held in that ruling that government entities cannot, under most circumstances, be forced to pay punitive damages in cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The majority ruling said, “The question presented in this case is whether another special form of damages — damages for emotional distress — may be recovered.”

The court ruled that under Barnes it “cannot treat federal funding recipients as having consented to be subject to damages for emotional distress.”

“There is … no basis in contract law to maintain that emotional distress damages are ‘traditionally available in suits for breach of contract,’” it said, citing the Barnes ruling.

The ruling was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

A dissenting opinion written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer and affirmed by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said, “Damages for emotional suffering have long been available as remedies for suits in breach of contract – at least where the breach was particularly likely to cause suffering of that kind.”

Attorneys in the case did not respond to requests for comment.

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