Law & Courts

Supreme Court Rules Against Some ‘Emotional Distress’ Claims. What It Means for Schools

By Mark Walsh — April 28, 2022 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 6-3 that damages for emotional distress are not available in key federal civil rights statutes barring race, sex, and disability discrimination, including in K-12 schools.

Writing in dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that under the majority’s decision, remedies for emotional suffering “will be denied to students who suffer discrimination at the hands of their teachers.”

“The 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,” Breyer said.

Although the case of Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC (No. 20-219) stemmed from alleged disability discrimination, the briefs discussed numerous cases in which students had sued schools for race or sex discrimination that included emotional distress claims. These included cases in which Black students sued over being exposed to the N-word in schools or complained about the exclusion of minority students from a gifted-and-talented program.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the new case, which involved a Texas woman with vision and hearing impairments who sued a federally funded physical therapy provider for alleged discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as the Affordable Care Act, after she was denied the provision of a sign-language interpreter.

Roberts acknowledged that the decision applied equally to two other federal legal provisions that frequently or exclusively involve public schools—Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race (and other factors) in federally funded programs, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded educational institutions.

“We have held that these statutes may be enforced through implied rights of action, and that private plaintiffs may secure injunctive or monetary relief in such suits,” Roberts said. But “it is less clear what remedies are available” in such suits, he said.

The chief justice said the statutes act as a contract between the federal government and funding recipients based on the spending clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

“A particular remedy is … appropriate relief in a private spending clause action only if the funding recipient is on notice that, by accepting federal funding, it exposes itself to liability of that nature,” Roberts said.

Federal funding recipients may presume that they are subject to usual breach-of-contract remedies for violations of the statutes, but emotional distress is generally not a remedy available under contract law, he said.

“We … cannot treat federal funding recipients as having consented to be subject to damages for emotional distress,” Roberts said. “It follows that such damages are not recoverable under the spending clause statutes we consider here.”

His opinion was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Kavanaugh wrote a short concurrence, joined by Gorsuch.

The dissenters say federal fund recipients knew they might face emotional-distress claims

Breyer, joined in his dissent by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said he disagreed with the chief justice about whether damages for emotional distress were generally available under contract law. He said such damages have long been available for at least some contracts that were not commercial in nature. These include matters such as contracts for marriage or those involving the handling of a body.

“In these cases, emotional distress damages are compensatory because they ‘make good the wrong done,’” he said, quoting an earlier case.

“The statutes before us seek to eradicate invidious discrimination,” Breyer said. “That purpose is clearly nonpecuniary. And discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability is particularly likely to cause serious emotional harm.”

Consider the plaintiff in a 1992 Supreme Court case, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, Breyer said, “a high school student who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her teacher.”

“Regardless of whether financial injuries were present in [that case], the major (and foreseeable) harm was the emotional distress caused by the indignity and humiliation of discrimination itself,” Breyer said.

In Franklin, the court held that the implied right to bring a lawsuit under Title IX, which the justices had upheld in a 1979 case, included a right to seek monetary damages.

Breyer said that “contract law is sufficiently clear to put prospective funding recipients on notice that intentional discrimination can expose them to potential liability for emotional suffering.”

Samuel Spital, the litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview that the majority opinion “reflects a fundamental failure to acknowledge the nature of discrimination.”

“One of the most serious harms in society are the dignitary injuries and facial discrimination that come from race or sex or disability status,” said Spital, whose organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the individual alleging disability discrimination in the case.

The Legal Defense Fund’s brief, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Women’s Law Center, highlighted a number of race discrimination cases involving schools in which emotional distress damages were awarded or such claims were allowed to proceed.

One case involved a Black Virginia student who said he was retaliated against for complaining about the exclusion of minority students from a gifted-and-talented program and was awarded $50,000 in emotional distress damages. In a case from New York state, courts upheld an award of emotional-distress damages for a Black student taunted by classmates with the N-word and threats of lynching.

Emotional-distress claims “come up in the schools in a whole host of ways,” said Spital. “Today’s decision effectively leaves all of those injuries beyond the reach of federal anti-discrimination law.”

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