FEATURED STORY April 02, 2022

U.S. Supreme Court Bars Emotional Distress Damages Under Section 504, Title VI, Title IX, ACA

You've Reached Your
Free Article Limit This Month
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all OnPractice content. Your subscription is free.
Subscribe Now

The Court reasoned that Spending Clause legislation, which conditions receipt of federal funds on compliance with the statute, does not permit recovery of emotional distress damages because emotional injury is not generally recoverable for breach of contract.

Statutes authorized by the Spending Clause include:

  • Rehabilitation Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability)
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (prohibiting sex-based discrimination and harassment at educational institutions)
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting race discrimination at educational institutions)
  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (prohibiting healthcare entities from discriminating based on race, sex, disability, or age)


Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, sought physical therapy from Premier Rehab Keller and requested that Premier provide an American Sign Language interpreter during her sessions. Premier declined and suggested that Cummings could communicate with her physical therapist using written notes, lip reading, and gesturing. Cummings then sought services from another physical therapy provider.

Cummings filed suit against Premier alleging that its failure to provide an interpreter constituted disability discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, seeking damages, declaratory relief, and an injunction. The District Court (Northern District of Texas) dismissed the complaint, finding Cummings' only compensable injuries were emotional and damages for emotional distress are not recoverable in private actions under the Rehabilitation Act or Affordable Care Act. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's decision, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case.

Contractual Nature of Spending Clause Statutes

The Court focused on the contractual nature of the Spending Clause antidiscrimination statutes. These statutes operate based on consent, meaning that, in return for receiving federal funds covered entities agree to comply with federally imposed conditions. The Court emphasized that entities receiving federal funds must voluntarily and knowingly accept the terms of this contractual relationship and be aware of the penalties they may be subject to if they breach the contract. The Court reasoned that for a particular remedy to be available in a private action under a Spending Clause statute, the funding recipient must be on notice that it will be liable for such damages as a result of breaching its contract with the federal government.

Prior cases and statutory amendments have clarified that, although there is a private right of action under these antidiscrimination statutes at issue, the Court said, the remedies available are limited to those typically available in breach of contract actions. In Barnes v. Gorman, 536 U.S. 181 (2002), the Court held that individuals may recover monetary or injunctive relief but not punitive damages under these antidiscrimination statutes because punitive damages are not available in breach of contract actions.

In Cummings, the Court held that emotional distress damages were not recoverable in a private action to enforce Spending Clause antidiscrimination statutes because emotional distress damages are generally not compensable in breach of contract actions.


In a dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that emotional harm is an anticipated injury arising from intentional discrimination and that compensating individuals for such harm is consistent with the purpose of contract law remedies. Justice Breyer further noted the inconsistency between the Court's holding and other antidiscrimination statutes that permit recovery of compensatory damages for emotional distress.


This ruling is particularly significant for colleges, universities, school districts, charter schools, and healthcare providers, most of whom are federal funding recipients. Students and patients can no longer recover emotional distress damages under these statutes, which historically have been a substantial portion of the damages sought in such actions.            

The bar on emotional distress damages is limited to Spending Clause antidiscrimination statutes. The Court's ruling in Cummings does not affect federal antidiscrimination statutes that are not Spending Clause legislation, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Moreover, it also does not it affect state and local antidiscrimination laws.

©2022 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Focused on labor and employment law since 1958, Jackson Lewis P.C.'s 950+ attorneys located in major cities nationwide consistently identify and respond to new ways workplace law intersects business. We help employers develop proactive strategies, strong policies and business-oriented solutions to cultivate high-functioning workforces that are engaged, stable and diverse, and share our clients' goals to emphasize inclusivity and respect for the contribution of every employee. For more information, visit

ALM expressly disclaims any express or implied warranty regarding the OnPractice Content, including any implied warranty that the OnPractice Content is accurate, has been corrected or is otherwise free from errors.

More From Jackson Lewis P.C.

South Carolina Anti-Vaccine Mandate Law: Implications for Private Employers

By T. Chase Samples Jackson Lewis P.C. May 16 , 2022

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has signed into law House Bill 3126, which has implications for public and private employers that continue to require employees in South Carolina to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Transferring Talent from Facilities Abroad as Option for Skilled Workers for Manufacturing Companies

By Nicola Ai Ling Prall Jackson Lewis P.C. May 13 , 2022

Using treaty of commerce and navigation visas as a possible option for manufacturing companies searching for talent is a great way for manufacturing companies to explore. Companies with affiliates abroad have another option: the L-1 visa.

Chicago Adopts New Sexual Harassment Prevention Obligations for Employers

By Nadine C. Abrahams Jackson Lewis P.C. May 13 , 2022

The Chicago City Council has created new employer obligations to provide training to employees and supervisors on sexual harassment prevention and how bystanders should respond to sexual harassment.

More From Health Care

Fifth Circuit Decision Could Undermine Constitutionality of HHS Civil Money Penalty Laws

By Robert P. Charrow Greenberg Traurig May 20 , 2022

On May 18, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in Jarkesy v. Securities and Exchange Comm’n, in which it examined the constitutionality of an agency civil money penalty enforcement proceeding.

Construction Company Settles False Claims Act Allegations Relating to Small Business Subcontracting for $2.8 Million

By Melissa P. Prusock Greenberg Traurig May 13 , 2022

On May 12, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a $2,804,110 settlement with Hensel Phelps Construction Company to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by circumventing federal regulations designed to encourage contract awards to service-disabled veteran owned small businesses (SDVOSBs). According to the settlement, Hensel Phelps, a general contractor that performs public and private construction projects, improperly claimed credit toward its small business subcontracting goals for subcontracts it awarded to an SDVOSB that it should have known was acting as a mere “pass-through” for a large business that was actually performing the work.

E2 Law Podcast: Episode 18 |'Fairness' in Superfund Allocation Matters, Part 2B

By David Mandelbaum Greenberg Traurig May 11 , 2022

In Part 2B of Greenberg Traurig Environmental Shareholder David Mandelbaum’s conversation with William Hengemihle of FTI Consulting on Superfund allocation disputes under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the federal program for cleaning up sites contaminated by historic operations, they discuss fault and when it may trump cost causation, “transactional fairness,” use of contracts experts, cooperation, and recalcitrance.

Featured Stories