Supreme Court Rules Against Discrimination Claim for Emotional Distress

May 6, 2022

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the dismissal of a discrimination lawsuit filed by a deaf, legally blind woman against a physical therapy business that wouldn’t provide an American Sign Language interpreter for her appointments.

In a 6-3 ruling with conservatives in the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that businesses that receive federal health care money can’t be sued for discrimination under the Affordable Care Act when the harm alleged is emotional, not financial.

The current case began when the woman, Jane Cummings, asked for an ASL interpreter for physical therapy appointments to treat chronic back pain with Premier Rehab Keller, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Cummings communicates primarily in ASL. But Premier Rehab said Cummings could “communicate with the therapist using written notes, lip reading, or gesturing,” Roberts wrote.

She went elsewhere, but then sued the business, asking for a court order against Premier Rehab and damages for emotional distress. Lower courts dismissed the lawsuit.

Cummings argued that failure to provide an interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act. Premier Rehab is subject to these statutes, which apply to entities that receive federal financial assistance, because it receives reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid for the provision of some of its services.

But the court majority wrote that emotional distress damages are not “traditionally available in suits for breach of contract” and in his case federal funding recipients have no “clear notice” that they would face such a remedy in private actions brought to enforce the statutes.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that people who suffer discrimination often feel humiliation or embarrassment. “It is difficult to square the Court’s holding with the basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve. One such purpose, as I have said, is to vindicate `human dignity and not mere economics,”’ Breyer wrote, citing an opinion from his onetime boss, Justice Arthur Goldberg, in a key Civil Rights-era case.

Breyer noted in his opinion that some anti-bias laws, including against workplace discrimination, allow for damages for emotional distress.

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