Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., the U.S. Supreme Court held that damages for emotional distress are not recoverable in lawsuits alleging violations of two federal civil rights statutes covering people with disabilities—Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This decision will harm people with disabilities who experience mental distress and emotional injury resulting from discrimination in all aspects of public life, including medical offices, schools, workplaces, state and local government programs, and other settings.
The plaintiff in this case, Jane Cummings, is deaf and legally blind. She sought physical therapy services from Premier Rehab Keller (PRK) and asked PRK to provide an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at her therapy sessions. PRK refused and told Ms. Cummings that she could instead communicate with the therapist using written notes, lip reading, or gesturing. Ms. Cummings sued, alleging that PRK’s failure to provide an ASL interpreter constituted disability discrimination under Section 504 and the ACA and so she sought damages and other relief.
In partnership with other disability rights organizations, The Arc explained in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court that without the availability of emotional distress damages, some individuals with disabilities who have been discriminated against on the basis of their disability in violation of federal law will have no relief. As the amicus brief stated: “Often, violations of the relevant statutes do not cost individuals with disabilities money, nor do they impose physical harm. Instead, they are humiliated, singled out, mocked, or made to go without regular access to the service to which they are entitled….Such core harms to human dignity are the very injuries that the Rehabilitation Act, Title VI, Title IX, and the Affordable Care Act are meant to prohibit.” The amicus brief also explained that the standards for proving the level of emotional harm that justifies a damages award are already rigorous and courts carefully analyze awards for adherence to the law and evidence.
“This ruling deprives people with disabilities of justice. These civil rights statutes are intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities and other historically disenfranchised groups. In foreclosing relief for the emotional distress that may ensue from discrimination, this holding diminishes the dignity and respect that people with disabilities deserve and are entitled to as full members of our society. We are very disappointed in this ruling,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that people who suffer discrimination often feel humiliation or embarrassment and that damages for emotional suffering have long been available as remedies in cases alleging discrimination:
It is difficult to square the Court’s holding with the basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve. One such purpose…is 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. 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.
The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of nearly 600 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with IDD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.
Editor’s Note: The Arc is not an acronym; always refer to us as The Arc, not The ARC and never ARC. The Arc should be considered as a title or a phrase.