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U.S. Supreme Court Holds Emotional Damages Not Enough for Public Accommodation Violations

A Texas deaf and legally blind woman sued a physical therapy facility for refusing to provide her with a sign language interpreter. Premier Rehab Keller told Jane Cummings to communicate with her therapist using notes, lip-reading, and gestures. She sued, alleging Premier Rehab violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act. Those statutes apply to the company because it receives federal financial assistance through Medicare and Medicaid.

The district court judge determined Cumming’s only injuries were “humiliation, frustration and emotional distress.” That court said the laws she sued under did not allow for enforcement based on such emotional harm. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the Supreme Court. He said the two statutes at issue were similar to contracts. As individuals may not recover damages for emotional harm when a contract is breached, individuals were not entitled to emotional distress damages here.

The three more liberal justices joined in a dissenting opinion. Justice Breyer wrote that some kinds of contracts may give rise to lawsuits for emotional harm. He asserted a “breach of a promise not to discriminate” fell in this category. The statutes are intended to eradicate invidious discrimination, something that is particularly likely to cause “serious emotional harm,” according to Justice Breyer. He concluded by asserting the decision would leave victims of discrimination with no remedy at all because victims of these types of discrimination sometimes do not suffer any “attendant pecuniary harms.”