Supreme Court ruling weakens rights of people with disabilities, lawyers say

Disability rights advocates are unhappy with a recent US Supreme Court ruling limiting the ability to seek damages in many discrimination claims. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling erodes the rights of people with disabilities, advocates say, by making it harder to file complaints under some of the country’s anti-discrimination laws.

The High Court late last month ruled 6-3 against Jane Cummings, who is deaf and legally blind, determining that emotional distress from discrimination is insufficient harm to warrant legal action under four federal statutes on civil rights.

Cummings sued after Texas Premier Rehab Keller refused to provide him with a sign language interpreter during his physical therapy appointments. The therapy provider said Cummings could use notes, lip-reading and gestures to communicate instead.

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Cummings argued that Prime Minister Rehab Keller had discriminated against him on the basis of his disability, violating the Rehabilitation Act 1973 and the Affordable Care Act, which apply to facilities that receive federal funds as the therapy provider.

However, a federal judge determined that Cummings’ only injuries were “humiliation, frustration and emotional distress” and indicated that the laws in question did not allow for the recovery of damages in such cases. A federal appeals court upheld the decision and a majority of the Supreme Court agreed.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said damages for emotional distress are not available in most breach of contract cases, so it is unreasonable to think that companies receiving Federal dollars should be held to a different standard.

“After all, when considering accepting federal funds, a potential recipient would surely wonder not only what rules they should follow, but also what kind of penalties might be on the table,” Roberts wrote.

In addition to the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, the ruling applies to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted that discrimination often harms in purely emotional ways.

“It is difficult to reconcile the court’s decision with the fundamental goals that anti-discrimination laws seek to serve,” Breyer wrote. “The court’s decision now allows victims of discrimination to recover damages only if they can prove that they have suffered economic harm, although the main harm caused by discrimination is rarely economic. … Today’s court ruling will leave these victims without any remedy.

The ruling puts people with disabilities in a precarious position, advocates say.

“These civil rights laws are intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities and other historically disenfranchised groups. By preventing the relief of emotional distress that can arise from discrimination, this detention undermines the dignity and respect that people with disabilities deserve and are entitled to as full members of our society,” said Peter. Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The ruling will effectively “weaken protections for people with disabilities in the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act,” according to Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

“Nearly 50 years after the Rehabilitation Act was passed, too many people with disabilities continue to face isolation and humiliation due to discrimination,” Burnim said. “By limiting their ability to seek and obtain damages for the emotional distress they experience when their rights are violated – in many cases the only recognizable harm suffered by these plaintiffs – today’s decision has significantly limited their access to justice.”

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