Civil and Human Rights

Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C.

In Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, PLLC, the Supreme Court considered whether individuals may recover emotional distress damages when they sue under federal laws that prohibit discrimination by recipients of federal funds.

Case Summary

Jane Cummings, who is both deaf and legally blind, was referred by two doctors to Premier Rehab Keller, PLLC (Premier Rehab), a physical therapy provider that receives federal funds, to seek treatment for her chronic back pain. Cummings communicates using American Sign Language, and she asked Premier Rehab to provide her with an ASL interpreter. Premier Rehab refused, and Cummings sued, alleging that Premier Rehab violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, both of which prohibit discrimination based on disability by any federal funding recipient. As part of that lawsuit, Cummings sought damages for the “humiliation, frustration, and emotional distress” caused by her experience at Premier Rehab.

The district court dismissed Cummings’ suit, holding that Cummings could not recover damages for emotional distress, and the court of appeals affirmed. According to the court of appeals, even though federal funding recipients are generally liable for “compensatory damages” and for “those remedies traditionally available in suits for breach of contract,” Cummings could not recover because, in the court’s view, “emotional distress damages are not available for breach of contract.” Cummings asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, which it agreed to do. CAC filed an amici curiae brief on behalf of law professors in support of Cummings.

Our brief made several key points. First, it demonstrated that the principle that where there is a right, there is a remedy has deep roots in American legal thought and has been repeatedly recognized by the Supreme Court. English legal commentators articulated this principle years before American independence. As influential jurist William Blackstone explained, “every right when withheld must have a remedy, and every injury its proper redress.” The drafters of many of the early state constitutions adopted the right to a remedy in their state charters, and the Framers incorporated this idea into the U.S. Constitution. As our brief explained, central to this principle is the idea that courts can and should use any appropriate relief to compensate plaintiffs for injuries caused by violations of their legal rights, including violations of federal statutes like the ones at issue here.

Next, our brief argued that courts have long viewed emotional distress damages as an important means of providing redress for victims of legal wrongs. More specifically, courts have awarded damages to compensate plaintiffs for emotional harms or, as some nineteenth century judges put it, “mental sufferings.” Legal commentators in that period also recognized mental suffering as a real harm that was deserving of compensation. And this was true in cases involving breach of contract, where injury to the plaintiff’s feelings could be considered a proximate result of a breach. In particular, courts often awarded damages to plaintiffs who suffered emotional distress from discriminatory treatment or exclusion by common carriers—businesses that provide transportation or other services to the general public. In the twentieth century, courts began to recognize separate tort actions for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and they too compensated plaintiffs for the emotional distress caused by discrimination.

Finally, our brief rebutted Premier Rehab’s arguments that emotional distress damages are too much like punitive damages, which the Supreme Court has said are not available in suits under these statutes, and are too indeterminate to be awarded. First, the brief explained that emotional distress damages are completely distinct from punitive damages. The two remedies serve different purposes, and courts have historically used different methods to assess punitive and compensatory damages. Second, emotional distress damages are not indeterminate, but are measured by juries and reviewed by judges, both of which take great care to assess the relevant facts in any case.

On April 28, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Premier Rehab, holding that Cummings could not recover damages for emotional distress. Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. Justice Breyer’s opinion explained that emotional distress damages were traditionally available when a contractual breach was particularly likely to result in serious emotional disturbance, and because discrimination is especially prone to causing such disturbance, parties with claims under anti-discrimination statutes should be able to recover for emotional distress damages.  Indeed, his opinion pointed out that victims of discrimination often suffer only emotional—rather than financial—injury, meaning that these individuals will be left with no remedy at all.

Case Timeline

  • August 30, 2021

    CAC files amici curiae brief on behalf of law professors

    Sup. Ct. Amici Br.
  • November 30, 2021

    The Supreme Court hears oral argument

  • April 28, 2022

    Supreme Court issues its decision

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