The U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Emotional Damages Are Not Available Under Spending Clause Statutes, Including Title IX and Title VI, Without Express Statutory Authority

Published

On April 28, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Cummings v Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C. that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce several civil rights statutes. While Cummings focused on damages available under the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, the Court addressed two other Spending Clause statutes that similarly prohibit discrimination based on certain protected grounds: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”) and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), signaling that the Court’s restriction of emotional damages extends to those statutes as well. The Court’s decision is important for K-12 schools and institutions of higher education that receive federal funds in determining their potential liability under Title IX and Title VI. Because Cummings significantly limits the available damages for a student suing his or her institution under Title IX and Title VI, it should have a direct impact on settlement discussions and potential recovery at trial in many such cases. ​

What You Need to Know:

  • Damages for emotional distress are not available for lawsuits brought under spending clause statutes, including Title IX and Title VI.
  • Damages for emotional distress may still be available where plaintiffs also assert claims under other state and federal statutes that do permit the recovery of emotional damages.​

In its 6-3 opinion in Cummings, the Court explained that while Congress has broad power under the Spending Clause of the Constitution to set the terms by which it will disburse federal funds, Spending Clause statutes essentially operate as a contract between the Government and the recipient of funds, and thus Congress’s power to enact such legislation depends on whether the funding recipient voluntarily and knowingly accepts the terms of the contract. The Court held that where the legislation is silent as to available remedies, a federal funding recipient may only be considered to be on notice that it is subject to remedies traditionally available in suits for breach of contract, which generally do not include damages for emotional distress. 

Petitioner Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, had sought physical therapy services from Respondent Premier Rehab Keller and requested that Premier Rehab provide an American Sign Language interpreter for her sessions. When Premier Rehab declined to provide the accommodation and told Cummings that her therapist could instead communicate with her through other means, Cummings filed suit against Premier Rehab alleging discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act. It was undisputed that Premier Rehab was a recipient of federal funds subject to these statutes. The District Court determined that Cummings’ only resultant injuries were emotional in nature and held that such damages were not recoverable in private actions brought under either statute and dismissed the complaint. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. 

In upholding the lower courts’ decisions, the Supreme Court relied on precedent holding that “if Congress intends to impose a condition on the grant of federal moneys, it must do so unambiguously.” See Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 17 (1981). The Court noted that the same reasoning applies to determining the scope of available remedies in such actions. See Barnes v. Gorman, 536 U.S. 181. In Barnes, the Supreme Court held that punitive damages are generally not available for breach of contract, and thus federal funding recipients are not on notice that they may be subject to such damages. 

The Court’s decision in Cummings is important to K-12 schools and institutions of higher education that receive federal funds in measuring their potential liability under similar anti-discrimination Spending Clause statutes like Title IX and Title VI, though on the other hand, Cummings’s impact may be limited in cases where plaintiffs also assert claims under other state and federal statutes that do permit the recovery of emotional damages. 

The Higher Education Practice at Saul Ewing will continue to monitor this and other cases impacting colleges and universities. For questions, please contact the alert’s authors or any member of the Higher Education Practice.​