Jane Cummings (“Cummings”), a deaf and legally blind woman, sued a physical therapy provider that receives federal funding, Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C. (“Premier Rehab”), alleging that it discriminated against her on the basis of disability, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act, by failing to provide an ASL interpreter at her therapy sessions. Cummings sought to recover emotional damages in her lawsuit because of the distress she claims to have suffered by not being provided an interpreter.
The District Court found that damages for emotional harm are not recoverable in private actions brought to enforce either anti-discrimination statute. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed both lower courts, holding that emotional distress damages are not recoverable under Spending Clause anti-discrimination statutes like those at issue in Cummings’ suit.
In its analysis, the Court revisited its “contract law” analysis of Spending Clause statutes (which includes Title IX). Whether a particular remedy, like the recovery of emotional distress damages, is recoverable must be informed by how Spending Clause statutes operate. By conditioning an offer of federal funding on a promise by the recipient not to discriminate, a “contract” between the Government and the recipient of funds is the essential result, and Congress’ power to enact such laws rests on whether the recipient voluntarily and knowingly accepts the terms of that “contract.” The application of this framework applies equally to the scope of conduct that funding recipients may be liable for in violating their anti-discriminatory obligations as it does to the particular remedies available in private Spending Clause actions. Accordingly, a particular remedy is available in Spending Clause actions only if the funding recipient is on notice that, by accepting federal funding, it exposes itself to liability of that nature.
Based on this framework, the Court found that the types of liabilities that most recipients of funding under the Spending Clause would be on notice of are based on contract law. Under traditional contract law, emotional distress is generally not a compensable injury. Accordingly, the Court cannot treat federal funding recipients as having consented to be subject to damages for emotional distress by accepting funds, and such damages are accordingly not recoverable.
While the Court decided Cummings on violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act, violations of Title IX would be subject to the same analysis and arrive at the same result because Title IX recipients have no clear notice that they could face emotional distress damages in private actions. Please contact Susan C. Stone (SCS@kjk.com; 216.736.7220), Kristina W. Supler (KWS@kjk.com; 216.736.7217), or any of KJK’s Title IX attorneys for more information or to discuss further.