News & Insights

Supreme Court Bars Damages For Emotional Distress Under The Spending Clause

The United States Supreme Court recently held that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in private actions to enforce statutes authorized by the Spending Clause of the United States Constitution. Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., No. 20-219 (Apr. 28, 2022). Statutes authorized by the Spending Clause include the Rehabilitation Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Plaintiff in Cummings was a deaf and legally blind woman who was undergoing physical therapy. During this therapy, she requested the physical therapy provider provide a sign-language interpreter to assist in her sessions. However, the physical therapy provider declined, suggesting that she could use notes, lip reading, and gesturing during her sessions instead. Plaintiff ultimately sought services from another physical therapy provider.

Plaintiff filed suit against the physical therapy provider alleging that its failure to provide an interpreter constituted disability discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act. The Northern District of Texas dismissed the complaint, finding the only compensable damages were emotional and these statutes do not permit recovery for alleged “humiliation, frustration, emotional distress.” The Fifth Circuit of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case.

The Supreme Court focused on the contractual nature of the Spending Clause statutes, which conditions receipt of federal funds on compliance with the statute. The Supreme Court reasoned that Spending Clause legislation does not permit recovery of emotional distress damages because emotional injury is not generally recoverable for breach of contract.

This ruling is particularly significant for entities that receive federal funding, including colleges, school districts, charter schools and healthcare providers. Emotional distress has historically been the largest category of damages sought in a claim for unlawful discrimination. This ruling will impact the value of potential claims against federal funding recipients, as it leaves Plaintiffs with essentially only out-of-pocket expenses. The Court’s ruling in Cummings may likely impact the amount of litigation under these statutes in the future.