SCOTUS: Emotional Distress Damages Unavailable Under “Spending Clause” Antidiscrimination Laws

In a recent decision, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., 142 S.Ct. 1562 (U.S. April 28, 2022), the U.S. Supreme Court held that emotional distress damages are not recoverable under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which Congress enacted under the Constitution’s “Spending Clause” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 1).

In sum, the plaintiff/petitioner, who is deaf and legally blind, sued under the above statutes after being denied an ASL interpreter at her physical therapy appointments at the defendant facility. The defendant is subject to these statutes, which apply to entities that receive federal financial assistance, because it receives reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid for the provision of some of its services.

The Court framed the issue, and defined the legal framework, as follows:

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 distress damages are available; if no, they are not. … We may presume that a funding recipient is aware that, for breaching its Spending Clause “contract” with the Federal Government, it will be subject to the usual contract remedies in private suits. [Cleaned up.]

The Court proceeded to apply this framework to the case at hand:

Under the framework just set out, the analysis here is straightforward. It is hornbook law that “emotional distress is generally not compensable in contract,” D. Laycock & R. Hasen, Modern American Remedies 216 (5th ed. 2019), just as “punitive damages … are generally not available for breach of contract,” Barnes, 536 U.S. at 187, 122 S.Ct. 2097. See 11 W. Jaeger, Williston on Contracts § 1341, p. 214 (3d ed. 1968) (“Mental suffering caused by breach of contract, although it may be a real injury, is not generally allowed as a basis for compensation in contractual actions.” (footnote omitted)); E. Farnsworth, Contracts § 12.17, p. 894 (1982) (describing rule of “generally denying recovery for emotional disturbance, or ‘mental distress,’ resulting from breach of contract” as “firmly rooted in tradition”); J. Perillo, Calamari *1572 & Perillo on Contracts § 14.5, p. 495 (6th ed. 2009) (Calamari & Perillo) (“As a general rule, no damages will be awarded for the mental distress or emotional trauma that may be caused by a breach of contract.”); C. McCormick, Law of Damages § 145, p. 592 (1935) (McCormick) (“It is often stated as the ‘general rule’ that, in actions for breach of contract, damages for mental suffering are not allowable.”). Under Barnes, we therefore cannot treat federal funding recipients as having consented to be subject to damages for emotional distress.

From this, the Court held, “[i]t follows that such damages are not recoverable under the Spending Clause statutes we consider here.”

And based on its determination that emotional distress damages are typically available in breach of contract suits, there was “correspondingly no ground to conclude that federal funding recipients have ‘clear notice’ that they would face such a remedy in private actions brought to enforce the statutes at issue.” [Cleaned up.]

While the petitioner here asserted claims under teh Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, the Court’s reasoning applies to four Spending Clause antidiscrimination statutes, namely: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d (which forbids race, color, and national origin discrimination in federally funded programs or activities); Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 (which prohibits sex-based discrimination); the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (which bars funding recipients from discriminating because of disability); and the Affordable Care Act, 42 U.S.C. § 18116 (which outlaws discrimination on any of the preceding grounds, in addition to age, by healthcare entities receiving federal funds).

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