Supreme Court decision limits recovery for emotional distress in Title VI and Title IX discrimination claims

In Cummings vs. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC, the Supreme Court held that damages for emotional distress are not available for discrimination claims based in four federal statutes. In the 6-3 opinion, the Court specifically reviewed a claim of disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Affordable Care Act. In addition to these two statutes, the Court considered if claims of discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, both of which regulate discrimination in K-12 schools. Specifically, Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin and Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

All four statutes provide federal funds to public entities in exchange for a promise not to discriminate on the basis of the referenced protected classes. This exchange creates a contract between the entity receiving federal funds and the federal government. Because of this contractual relationship, the Court found that the remedies available in a private cause of action for discrimination under any of the four laws must be the same as those available for a breach of contract. The Court explained that recovery for a breach of contract does not typically include the option of emotional distress damages. The Court went on to say that the previously relied on exception “to allow emotional damages because discrimination is likely to engender mental anguish does not apply because recipients [school districts, county offices of education, etc.] still do not have notice of the possibility that an exception damage applies.”

Because both Title VI and Title IX prohibit discrimination in K-12 public schools that receive federal funding, the Court’s decision directly impacts discrimination complaints and remedies available. Moving forward, local educational agencies can expect that any civil cause of action based in Title VI or Title IX complaints may not include damages for emotional distress that resulted because of the alleged discrimination. Recovery of emotional distress damages under California statutes and regulations may not necessarily be precluded because of this decision. Consequently, further guidance from legal counsel is recommended for matters based in California law.