A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision chips away at disability rights, advocates say, by making it harder to bring claims under some of the nation’s anti-discrimination laws.
The high court ruled late last month 6-3 against Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, determining that emotional distress from discrimination is insufficient harm to warrant a lawsuit under four federal civil rights laws.
Cummings sued after Premier Rehab Keller in Texas declined to provide her a sign language interpreter at her physical therapy appointments. The therapy provider said that Cummings could use notes, lip reading and gestures to communicate instead.
Cummings argued that Premier Rehab Keller discriminated against her on the basis of disability, violating the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act, which apply to facilities that receive federal funds like the therapy provider does.
However, a federal judge determined that Cummings’ only injuries were “humiliation, frustration and emotional distress” and indicated that the laws in question did not allow for the recovery of damages in such cases. A federal appeals court affirmed the ruling and a majority of the Supreme Court agreed.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that damages for emotional distress are not available in most breach of contract cases, so it’s unreasonable to think that business receiving federal dollars should be held to a different standard.
“After all, when considering whether to accept federal funds, a prospective recipient would surely wonder not only what rules it must follow, but also what sort of penalties might be on the table,” Roberts wrote.
In addition to the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, the ruling applies to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted that discrimination often harms in ways that are purely emotional.
“It is difficult to square the court’s holding with the basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve,” Breyer wrote. “The court’s decision today allows victims of discrimination to recover damages only if they can prove that they have suffered economic harm, even though the primary harm inflicted by discrimination is rarely economic. … The court’s decision today will leave those victims with no remedy at all.”
The ruling puts people with disabilities in a precarious position, advocates say.
“These civil rights statutes are intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities and other historically disenfranchised groups. In foreclosing relief for the emotional distress that may ensue from discrimination, this holding diminishes the dignity and respect that people with disabilities deserve and are entitled to as full members of our society,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.
The ruling will effectively “weaken the protections for people with disabilities in the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act,” according to Ira Burnim, legal director at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
“Nearly 50 years since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, too many people with disabilities continue to face isolation and humiliation as a result of discrimination,” Burnim said. “By limiting their ability to seek and obtain money damages for the emotional distress they experience when their rights are violated — in many cases, the only cognizable harms such plaintiffs experience — today’s decision has significantly limited their access to justice.”