The Supreme Court prohibits recovery for emotional harm in discrimination cases

WASHINGTON – By dividing 6 to 3 along ideological lines, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that victims of discrimination prohibited by four federal statutes should not sue if the only harm was emotional distress.

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

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

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

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote for the majority on Thursday, said the laws in question are something like contracts: In return for federal money, companies do not agree to discriminate and to be held accountable if they do. This was also true, he wrote, of Section VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race or national origin, and Section IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which excludes discrimination based on sex.

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

“After all,” the chief judge wrote, “when considering whether to accept federal funds, a potential recipient will probably wonder not only what rules to follow, but also what kind of fines there may be. on the table.”

The Supreme Court used similar reasoning in 2002 in Barnes v. Gorman, ruling that such federal laws did not allow criminal proceedings because such damages were typically not available in litigation for breach of contract.

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

In the dissent, Judge Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the Chief Justice had asked the right question but given the wrong answer. Some kinds of contracts, he wrote, can give rise to cases of emotional harm.

“Feeling breach of a promise not to discriminate under this category?” he wrote. “I should think so.”

“The statutes before us seek to eradicate gruesome discrimination,” he wrote. “This purpose is clearly non-economic. And discrimination based on race, color, national origin, gender, age or disability is particularly likely to cause serious emotional harm.”

Judges Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan endorsed Justice Breyer’s dissent in the case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, Nos. 20-219.

Referring to an earlier statement, Judge Breyer added that the majority had lost the greater purpose of the anti-discrimination laws, which were “to justify ‘human dignity and not just economics’.”

“But the court’s ruling today allows victims of discrimination to receive compensation only if they can prove that they have suffered financial harm, even though the primary harm inflicted by discrimination is rarely financial,” Judge Breyer wrote. “Victims of intentional discrimination can sometimes suffer deep emotional damage without any attendant financial harm. The court’s decision today will leave these victims with no recourse at all.”

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