Supreme Court Holds Emotional Distress Damages Are Not Available Under Title IX or Title VI

Last week, the United States Supreme Court held that a plaintiff alleging discrimination under Title VI, Title IX, the ADA, or the Rehabilitation Act cannot recover damages for emotional distress. In Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., the plaintiff, a deaf individual, sought treatment at Premier Rehab Keller for chronic back pain. In addition to physical therapy, the plaintiff asked Premier to provide sign language interpretation at her appointments.  Premier refused this request and assured the plaintiff that she could communicate with her provider in writing, by “lip reading,” or with gestures.  The plaintiff subsequently sued Premier, alleging violation of the Rehabilitation Act and seeking damages for emotional distress from being unable to obtain such accommodations.  The District Court held that the plaintiff’s claims of “humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress,” were not redressable under the Rehabilitation Act, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this decision.

The Supreme Court also affirmed the decision, ruling that the Rehabilitation Act and other federal laws governed by the Spending Clause (including Title IX and Title VI) operate like “contracts”: if a business wishes to receive federal funds, it must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws and faces consequences for non-compliance. The Court also relied on Barnes v. Gorman, a 2002 Supreme Court case in its majority opinion. In Barnes, the Court held that the Spending Clause conditions federal funds on non-discriminatory practices and that punitive damages are not available for Spending Clause violations. Utilizing the Barnes analogy, the Court in Cummings held that emotional distress damages are “not generally available for breach of contract” cases under Title VI, Title IX, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

It is also worth noting that the dissenting Justices observed that Cummings limits emotional distress damages under Title VI and Title IX but not under Title VII because it was enacted under the 14th Amendment, not the Spending Clause. Therefore, under the current ruling, an employee who experienced workplace discrimination under Title VII would be able to recover emotional distress damages, but a student alleging a Title IX violation could not.

The Cummings decision will have an immediate effect on Title IX suits by significantly reducing the scope of available damages in lawsuits brought by students against colleges and universities under the theories of “erroneous outcome” or “deliberate indifference.” Because plaintiffs can now only recover compensatory damages (out of pocket costs) resulting from discrimination, it is likely that fewer Title IX cases will go to trial and that parties will settle for lower amounts.  And while changes to Title IX are coming in the new NPRM that is expected to become public this month, the substance of those changes is not yet known, and the NPRM faces a lengthy comment and review period before becoming final.

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