In a decision that has dismayed disability rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that emotional distress is not sufficient to sue for discrimination under federal civil rights statutes. The Court ruled 6-3 against an individual with multiple disabilities who sued a rehabilitation facility for discrimination, holding that there is no case unless victims can prove they suffered economic harm.
Jane Cummings is deaf and legally blind, relying predominately on American Sign Language to communicate. When a Texas rehabilitation facility failed to accommodate her requests for a sign language interpreter during her physical therapy sessions, Cummings filed a lawsuit.
She accused the rehab provider of discriminating against her based on her disabilities, violating the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as well as the Affordable Care Act. These federal laws, which cover people with disabilities, both apply to the facility because it receives federal funding.
According to a federal district court and appeals court, however, Cummings endured only emotional distress in this case. Emotional harm, the courts found, is insufficient for seeking damages. In April, the Supreme Court affirmed that “emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action.”
On behalf of the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the court had concluded the rehab facility, although it accepts federal funds, cannot be treated “as having consented to be subject to damages for emotional distress.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in his dissent that the court’s decision conflicts with the “basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve.” The decision, he said, denies victims of discrimination the ability to recover any monetary damages unless they have faced economic consequences, “even though the primary harm inflicted by discrimination is rarely economic.”
Disability rights advocates nationwide are expressing disappointment over the decision.
“This ruling deprives people with disabilities of justice,” said Peter Berns, CEO of advocacy group The Arc. “These civil rights statutes are intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities and other historically disenfranchised groups.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling, Berns adds, “diminishes the dignity and respect that people with disabilities deserve and are entitled to as full members of our society.”
“Compensation for emotional distress,” wrote the ACLU in a brief it had submitted with several other organizations last year, is “sometimes the only remedy available at all.”