U.S. Supreme Court Rules Emotional Distress Damages Unavailable in Some Federal Civil Rights Cases

Have you or a loved one been the victim of discrimination in the workplace, in higher education, at a public accommodation, or by the Government? If so, you may be entitled to actual damages under anti-discrimination legislation. However, recent Supreme Court precedent has limited the types of damages available under certain federal civil rights laws, leading to confusion and uncertainty for many victims.

One recent case, Cummings v Premier Rehab PLLC, saw the Court ruling that Plaintiffs making claims of unlawful discrimination under the federal Rehabilitation Act and Affordable Care Act could not recover damages for emotional distress. While the Court did allow for damages related to financial losses, it held that emotional distress damages were not covered by the statute. This holding may also signal the high Court’s willingness to limit the availability of emotional distress damages under other spending clause civil rights laws including Title VI (prohibiting race based discrimination by recipients of federal funds) and Title IX (prohibiting gender based discrimination by recipients of federal funds).

This decision stands in contrast to the protections offered by the New Mexico Human Rights Act, which allows for emotional distress damages as a result of discrimination as a form of actual damages. This means that people in New Mexico who experience discrimination on the basis of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, or other protected characteristics may be able to recover both economic and emotional damages as a result.

The dissenting opinion in Cummings, written by Justice Breyer, explained that damages in anti-discrimination statutes are intended to remedy both economic harms and to vindicate human dignity affronted by unlawful discrimination. This suggests that emotional distress damages should be available in such cases, as they can be a core part of addressing the harm caused by discriminatory behavior.

The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, held that damages available under spending clause statues, like the ACA which requires a recipient of federal funds to enter into certain agreements with the federal government in exchange for federal funds, are interpreted with reference to contract law. Applying this analysis, the majority found that emotional distress damages are not ordinarily available under breach of contract actions. Thus, if Congress wished to make emotional distress damages available to Plaintiffs it should have written the availability of that remedy into the federal law. The majority was unwilling to “expand” the remedies available to Plaintiffs without express congressional authorization. As the majority noted, Congress did not explain what remedies were available to Plaintiffs under the ACA or the Rehabilitation and, thus, potential Defendants were not put on notice that they could be liable for emotional distress damages as a consequence of entering into a an agreement with the government to receive federal funds.

If you or a loved one has suffered from discrimination in the workplace, it is important to understand your rights and the potential remedies available to you. At Candelaria Law LLC, we have experience representing victims of discrimination and fighting for their rights under the law. Our team can help you understand your options and navigate the legal process, so don’t hesitate to reach out for a consultation today.

Together, we can hold people and institutions accountable for their discriminatory behavior and work to ensure that all New Mexicans are treated fairly and with respect.

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