CIVIL RIGHTS-IMPLIED RIGHT OF ACTION-EMOTIONAL DISTRESS DAMAGES

May 12th, 2022 by Rieders Travis in Civil Rights

Cummings v. Keller, 2022 U.S. LEXIS 2230 (S. Ct. April 28, 2022) (Roberts, C.J.)  Congress has broad power under the Spending Clause of the Constitution to set the terms on which it disburses federal funds. “[L]egislation enacted pursuant to the spending power is much in the nature of a contract: in return for federal funds, the [recipients] agree to comply with federally imposed conditions.” Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U. S. 1, 17, 101 S. Ct. 1531, 67 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1981). Exercising this authority, Congress has passed a number of statutes prohibiting recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating based on certain protected characteristics. We have held that these statutes may be enforced through implied rights of action, and that private plaintiffs may secure injunctive or monetary relief in such suits. See Barnes v. Gorman, 536 U. S. 181, 185, 187, 122 S. Ct. 2097, 153 L. Ed. 2d 230 (2002). Punitive damages, on the other hand, are not available. Id., at 189, 122 S. Ct. 2097, 153 L. Ed. 2d 230. The question presented in this case is whether another special form of damages—damages for emotional distress—may be recovered. Petitioner Jane Cummings is deaf and legally blind, and communicates primarily in American Sign Language (ASL). In October 2016, she sought physical therapy services from respondent Premier Rehab Keller, a small business in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Cummings requested that Premier Rehab provide an ASL interpreter at her appointments. Premier Rehab declined to do so, telling Cummings that she could communicate with the therapist using written notes, lip reading, or gesturing. Cummings then sought and obtained care from another provider. Cummings later filed this lawsuit against Premier Rehab, alleging that its failure to provide an ASL interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, §504, 87 Stat. 394, as amended, 29 U. S. C. §794(a), and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, §1557, 124 Stat. 260, 42 U. S. C. §18116. 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. In her complaint, Cummings sought declaratory relief, an injunction, and damages. The District Court dismissed the complaint. It observed that “the only compensable injuries that Cummings alleged Premier caused were ‘humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress.’” In the District Court’s view, “damages for emotional harm” are not recoverable in private actions brought to enforce the Rehabilitation Act or the Affordable Care Act. Ibid. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, adopting the same conclusion. 948 F. 3d 673 (2020). A number of States follow the Restatement rule and award emotional distress damages “where the injury entails more than a pecuniary loss, and the duty violated is closely associated with the feelings and emotions of the injured party.” Chmiel, 32 Notre Dame Law., at 482. That represents “the most liberal approach,” Whaley, 26 Suffolk L. Rev., at 943, taken by a “strong minority” of courts, Corbin §59.1, at 541; see also McCormick §145, at 594-595. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, several States squarely reject the Restatement, and altogether forbid recovery of emotional distress damages even where the contract relates to nonpecuniary matters. See, e.g., Tompkins v. Eckerd, Civ. No. 09-2369, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46718, 2012 WL 1110069, *4 (D SC, Apr. 3, 2012); Contreraz v. Michelotti-Sawyers, 271 Mont. 300, 309, 896 P. 2d 1118, 1123 (1995); Keltner v. Washington County, 310 Ore. 499, 504-510, 800 P. 2d 752, 754-758 (1990). Most States reject the Restatement exception in a more nuanced way: by limiting the award of emotional distress damages to a narrow and idiosyncratic group of cases, rather than making them available in general wherever a breach would have been likely to inflict emotional harm. Calamari & Perillo §14.5, at 495-496. A good example is New York, which refused to apply the Restatement rule, and denied emotional distress damages, where the defendant hospital breached its contractual duty to return a newborn child to his parents by failing to prevent his abduction. Johnson v. Jamaica Hospital, 62 N. Y. 2d 523, 528-529, 467 N. E. 2d 502, 504, 478 N.Y.S.2d 838 (1984); see also id., at 536-537, 467 N. E. 2d, at 509, 478 N.Y.S.2d 838 (Meyer, J., dissenting).

Attorney Cliff Rieders

Attorney Cliff RiedersCliff Rieders is a Nationally Board Certified Trial Lawyer practicing personal injury law. A large part of his practice involves multi-district litigation, including cases related to pharmaceuticals, vitamin supplements and medical devices. He is admitted in several state and federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. Rieders is the past regional president of the Federal Bar Association and is a life member of the distinguished American Law Institute, which promulgates proposed rules adopted by many state courts. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. As a founder of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, he served on the Board for 15 years.

Not only has Rieders held many highly esteemed, leadership positions, he authored legislation related to the Patient Safety Authority and the Mcare Act, which governs medical and hospital liability actions in Pennsylvania. He authored texts upon which both practitioners and judges rely, including Pennsylvania Malpractice Laws and Forms, and Financial Responsibility Law Issues in Pennsylvania, the latter governing auto and truck collisions in Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote several books on the practice of law in Pennsylvania regarding wrongful death and survivor actions, insurance bad faith, legal malpractice claims and worker rights, among others. Rieders also serves as a resource to practitioners as a regular speaker for Celesq, an arm of the world’s largest legal publisher, Thomson Reuters West Publishing.

As recognition of his wide range of contribution to his profession and of his dedication to protecting the rights of his clients, he received numerous awards, among them the George F. Douglas Amicus Curiae Award, the Milton D. Rosenberg Award, the B’nai B’rith Justice Award, and awards of recognition from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers. [ Attorney Bio ]

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