Supreme Court of The United States

Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS): In a 6-3 ruling, Court expressed that, Emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce either the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Affordable Care Act, Roberts C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barret, JJ., joined, whereas. Kavanaugh, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Gorsuch, J., joined and Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Sotomayor and Kagan, JJ., joined.

Factual Background

Jane Cummings, who was deaf and legally blind, sought physical therapy services from Premier Rehab Keller and asked Premier Rehab to provide an American Sign Language interpreter for her sessions. Premier Rehab declined to do so, telling Cummings that the therapist could communicate with her through other means.

Later a lawsuit was filed seeking damages and other relief against Premier Rehab, alleging that its failure to provide an ASL interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act.

Premier Rehab was subject to the above statutes, which apply to entities that receive federal financial assistance, because it received reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid for the provision of some of its services.

Further, the District Court determined that the only compensable injuries allegedly caused by Premier Rehab were emotional in nature. It held that damages for emotional harm are not recoverable in private actions brought to enforce either statute. The District Court thus dismissed the complaint, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Whether emotional distress damages may be recovered under the Spending Clause statute?

Court noted that the statutes are silent with regard to the available remedies.

It was stated that there is no basis in contract law to maintain that emotional distress damages were “traditionally available in suits for breach of contract”.

Hence, emotional distress damages are not traditionally available in suits for breach of contract, for emotional distress, therefore, it was held that emotional distress damages are not recoverable under the Spending Clause anti-discrimination statutes.

None of the laws that protect against disability discrimination allows victims to recover for their emotional distress.


Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Gorsuch said that the contract law analogy was imperfect and would reorient the inquiry to focus on a background interpretive principle rooted in the Constitution’s separation of powers.


Justice Breyer with whom Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan joined, with dissenting opinion that, compensatory damages under Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI, 42 U. S. C. §2000d; Education Amendments Act of 1972, Title IX, 20 U. S. C. §1681; Rehabilitation Act of 1973, §504, 29 U. S. C. §794; Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), §1557, 42 U. S. C. §18116, cannot include compensation for emotional suffering.

Further, it was expressed that the Spending Clause statutes prohibit intentional invidious discrimination, and that kind of discrimination causes emotional disturbance. Hence, applying the contract analogy, victims of intentional violations of the anti-discrimination statutes can recover compensatory damages for emotional suffering.

Additionally, it was observed that the damages for emotional suffering have long been available as remedies for suits in breach of contract at least where the breach was particularly likely to cause suffering of that kind.

“Contract law treatises make clear that expected losses from the breach of a contract entered for nonpecuniary purposes might reasonably include nonpecuniary harms. So contract law traditionally does award damages for emotional distress “where other than pecuniary benefits [were] contracted for” or where the breach “was particularly likely to result in serious emotional disturbance.”

 [Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, 2022 SCC OnLine US SC 4, decided on 28-4-2022]

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