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Supreme Court hears arguments in disability bias case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments recently in a case that involves damages in disability discrimination cases.

In that case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., the court is considering whether plaintiffs who bring discrimination claims under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act can obtain emotional distress damages. The Rehabilitation Act bars discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance.

The plaintiff is deaf and legally blind. She largely communicates using American Sign Language. She attempted to obtain services from a physical therapy provider that receives federal funding. After the provider declined her request for an interpreter, she sued under the Rehabilitation Act. She argued that the physical therapy provider discriminated against her based on her disability and sought damages, including for emotional distress.

A lower court found that emotional distress damages were not available and a federal appellate court agreed.

The plaintiff filed a cert petition with the Supreme Court and the justices agreed to take the case.

In her petition, the plaintiff cited Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin in programs that receive federal funds.

“Over the years, Congress has repeatedly extended Title VI’s private right of action to new contexts, incorporating it into the Rehabilitation Act, the [Americans with Disabilities Act], and the Affordable Care Act. Those enactments reflect Congress’s judgment that the federal government cannot and should not shoulder the burden of enforcing those laws by itself,” the plaintiff argued in her cert petition. “Categorically denying recovery for emotional distress would frustrate those congressional judgments by denying many victims of discrimination any effective remedy, thereby thwarting meaningful private enforcement.”

Kannon Shanmugam, an attorney at Paul, Weiss in Washington, D.C., who represents the physical therapy provider, argued that the court “should be cautious about recognizing the availability of emotional distress damages here.”

He said that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 caps damages, and argued that “Congress plainly does not believe that emotional distress damages are a necessary remedy for every instance of discrimination.”

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