Supreme Court Bans Recovery for Emotional Harm in Discrimination Suits

WASHINGTON — Dividing 6 to 3 along ideological lines, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that victims of discrimination that is forbidden by four federal statutes may not sue if the only harm was emotional distress.

The case concerned Jane Cummings, a Texas woman who is deaf and communicates primarily in American Sign Language. In 2016, she sought treatment for chronic back pain at Premier Rehab Keller, a physical therapy facility in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, asking it to provide a sign language interpreter at her appointments.

The facility refused, saying Ms. Cummings could communicate with her therapist using notes, lip reading or gestures. She sued under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act, both of which ban facilities receiving federal funds — as Premier Rehab Keller had — from discriminating on the basis of disability.

A federal judge found that the only injuries Ms. Cummings had suffered were “humiliation, frustration and emotional distress” and ruled that the laws she invoked did not allow suits for such emotional harm. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, affirmed that ruling.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority on Thursday, said the laws at issue are something like contracts: In exchange for federal money, businesses agree not to discriminate and to be held accountable if they do. This was also true, he wrote, of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars discrimination based on sex.

People suing for breach of contract, Chief Justice Roberts continued, generally cannot recover damages for emotional harm caused by the breach. By analogy, he wrote, people suing businesses that accept federal money cannot win such damages, either.

“After all,” the chief justice wrote, “when considering whether to accept federal funds, a prospective recipient would surely wonder not only what rules it must follow, but also what sort of penalties might be on the table.”

The Supreme Court used similar reasoning in 2002 in Barnes v. Gorman, ruling that such federal laws did not allow suits for punitive damages because those kinds of damages were not typically available in lawsuits for breach of contract.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined the majority opinion.

In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the chief justice had asked the right question but given the wrong answer. Some sorts of contracts, he wrote, can give rise to suits for emotional harm.

“Does breach of a promise not to discriminate fall into this category?” he wrote. “I should think so.”

“The statutes before us seek to eradicate invidious discrimination,” he wrote. “That purpose is clearly nonpecuniary. And discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability is particularly likely to cause serious emotional harm.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Justice Breyer’s dissent in the case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, No. 20-219.

Quoting an earlier opinion, Justice Breyer added that the majority had lost sight of the larger purpose of the anti-discrimination laws, which was “to vindicate ‘human dignity and not mere economics.’”

“But the court’s decision today allows victims of discrimination to recover damages only if they can prove that they have suffered economic harm, even though the primary harm inflicted by discrimination is rarely economic,” Justice Breyer wrote. “Indeed, victims of intentional discrimination may sometimes suffer profound emotional injury without any attendant pecuniary harms. The court’s decision today will leave those victims with no remedy at all.”

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