Equal Rights Advocates Criticizes Decision by Supreme Court Denying Emotional Distress Damages For Certain Federal Civil Rights Claims

April 28. 2022


For Immediate Release
Apr 28, 2022

Media Contact
Paulina Campos
(650) 455-9928
[email protected]

Equal Rights Advocates, which fights for gender justice in workplaces and schools across the country, believes the decision will allow discrimination to continue without the proper ability to hold institutions accountable.

April 28, 2022Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) strongly denounces today’s decision by the United States Supreme Court in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, PLLC, which found that emotional distress damages are unavailable for victims of discrimination by federally-funded recipients in suits brought under anti-discrimination statutes pursuant to the Constitution’s Spending Clause. With spending clause legislation, the federal government provides funds in exchange for the funding recipient’s adherence to various conditions. 

The case arises from a claim for emotional distress damages by Jane Cummings, a legally deaf and blind person denied an ASL interpreter by a Texas rehabilitation facility that receives federal funding. Today’s decision not only impacts the spending clause statutes at issue,  the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act. Its holding denying emotional distress damages will extend to two other spending clause anti-discrimination statutes:: Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (prohibiting sex discrimination by schools) and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin). 

The majority’s decision rests on the flawed assumption that defendants did not have fair notice of their liability for emotional distress damages—despite the long history of courts using those damages to make plaintiffs whole. Indeed, as Justice Breyer noted in a dissent joined by Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, emotional distress is often the only form of injury suffered by victims of discrimination: “[T]he Court’s decision today allows victims of discrimination to recover damages only if they can prove that they have suffered economic harm, even though the primary harm inflicted by discrimination is rarely economic. Indeed, victims of intentional discrimination may sometimes suffer profound emotional injury without any attendant pecuniary harms.”

As a national nonprofit representing students in Title IX claims, ERA strenuously opposes the majority’s analysis here and raises an alarm about its impact on the accountability of federally funded programs engaged in discrimination.

“For student survivors, emotional distress damages are generally the exclusive remedy for their claims; without the ability to financially hold educational institutions responsible for their negligence and the serious harms they cause to survivors, this decision will allow harassment and discrimination to continue without substantial consequence. Without a true legal remedy for their claims, this will only deepen the chilling effect current Title IX laws and policies have on survivor claims,” said ERA Managing Attorney Harjit Kaur.

ERA urges a Congressional fix.

“The Court’s decision today in Cummings relegates students and others who have been emotionally harmed by discrimination by federally funded programs to second class victims without redress. We urge Congress to step in to remedy the Court’s miscarriage of justice,” said Equal Rights Advocates Executive Director Noreen Farrell.

To request an interview with Noreen Farrell, please contact Paulina Campos at [email protected] or 650-455-9928.

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About Equal Rights Advocates
Equal Rights Advocates fights for gender justice in workplaces and schools across the country. Since 1974, they have been fighting on the front lines of social justice to protect and advance rights and opportunities for women, girls, and people of all gender identities through groundbreaking legal cases and bold legislation that sets the stage for the rest of the nation.

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