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Supreme Court Rules for Business on Emotional-Distress Damages

April 28, 2022, 2:31 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Texas physical therapy business in ruling against the availability of emotional-distress damages under federal anti-discrimination law.

In a 6-3 ruling that broke along ideological lines, the justices said such damages are not available in those cases.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the analysis was “straightforward.” Because the anti-discrimination statutes are silent as to the availability of such damages, businesses could not have anticipated that they could be on the hook for them.

Civil-rights groups, disability organizations, and scholars backed damages while Republican-led states and the Chamber of Commerce argued against them.

Jane Cummings’ lawyer told the justices at the Nov. 30 argument that such damages are often the only compensatory remedy for victims of intentional discrimination.

Cummings mainly communicates with sign language and it’s difficult for her to speak, read, and write. Suffering chronic back pain in Texas in 2016, she sought physical therapy from Premier Rehab Keller. The business refused to provide a sign-language interpreter, telling Cummings she could communicate with the therapist by written notes, lipreading, gesturing, or bringing her own interpreter.

The New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed the business wasn’t on notice that it could be liable for emotional-distress damages under the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the kind of discrimination at issue here “is particularly likely to cause serious emotional disturbance,” and so the business should have been on notice. He was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The case is Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., U.S., No. 20-219.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com; Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com