Supreme Court Holds Damages for Emotional Distress not Available Under Section 504 and ACA
The Supreme Court recently held that damages for mental anguish and emotional distress are not available under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), Cummings v Premier Rehab Keller, PLLC, ___ US ___ (April 28, 2022). Plaintiff in Cummings was a disabled patient who alleged a medical provider that received federal funds through Medicare and Medicaid illegally discriminated against her because of her disability. The district court dismissed her case because her only compensable injuries were emotional in nature. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal as did the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court observed Section 504 and the ACA were Spending Clause statutes (referring to the Spending Clause of the federal constitution), pursuant to which recipients received federal funding based on a promise to comply with federal law. Spending Clause statues, the Court noted, were enforced like contracts between the federal government and funding recipients. Since, generally, a party to a contract may not recover damages for mental anguish and emotional distress, the Court held a plaintiff alleging the breach of a Spending Clause statute may not either. Similar Spending Clause statues include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Cummings does not mean civil rights plaintiffs can never recover damages for mental anguish and emotional distress. There are federal civil rights laws that specifically permit the recovery of such damages. Additionally, in Michigan, damages for mental anguish and emotional distress are available under civil rights laws enacted by the Michigan Legislature. Thus, the appropriate lesson to be drawn from Cummings is that plaintiffs who wish to pursue claims for mental anguish and emotional distress must take care to allege the violation of a law or laws that permit such damages.