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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Deaf Woman’s Emotional Distress Suit

July 6, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
The Conference Room of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Courtesy the U.S. Supreme Court)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear a case in its next term that could expand rights of discrimination victims to collect compensation for “emotional distress.”

A ruling that allows the compensation could widely broaden the liability for discrimination, potentially allowing anyone victimized by unfair treatment because of their race, age, disability, religion, national origin or sexual orientation to get money if they’re upset.

The case involves a deaf woman who was not offered an American Sign Language interpreter when she sought medical care at a Fort Worth, Texas clinic. 

Her case was thrown out by two lower courts because she was unable to prove in her private lawsuit the kinds of damages that normally establish a civil rights violation. They include physical injury, property damage or loss of income. 

Now, however, a reversal of the ruling has support from the Biden administration.

The woman, Jane Cummings, went to Premier Rehab Keller PLLC to be treated for chronic back pain. She asked the clinic to hire an interpreter of sign language, which is her only means of communicating.

Instead, staff members said she should use lip-reading, written notes or gesturing. If she wanted an interpreter, they said she should hire her own.

The clinic receives federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, which Cummings said meant it must comply with federal civil rights law.

She filed her lawsuit under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It says, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Subsequent case law has expanded the class of persons protected under the law to include disability, religion, age and others.

Unlike most other civil rights laws, it allows victims to be compensated for emotional distress.

The U.S. District Court ruled Cummings lacked a right to sue because her case represented a novel situation that left health clinics with no way of knowing they could be liable for her emotional distress. Her lawsuit was based entirely on a claim of emotional distress.

If anyone were to sue the clinic, it would have to come from a government agency, not a private individual, the court ruled.

The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Louisiana upheld the ruling.

Her attorney argued that the ruling defeats the purpose behind the civil rights law because it would leave many people with no right to sue.

The Biden administration agreed with Cummings’ attorney. Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar suggested that the Supreme Court review the case, which appears to have influenced its announcement on Friday to grant the lawsuit a hearing.

“The court of appeals’ decision will undermine the ability of both private parties and the federal government to enforce … anti-discrimination protections,” Prelogar wrote in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court.

Rulings in other federal courts demonstrate a patchwork of decisions in similar cases, meaning it is ripe for the Supreme Court to resolve the issue.

Several civil rights groups filed amicus briefs in the case, including the AARP and the Texas conference of the NAACP. Both of them support Cummings.

“Discrimination can sometimes cause economic injury — but in many cases the primary injury is pain and suffering, or other forms of mental or emotional harm,” the NAACP brief said.

The case is Jane Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC, number 20-219, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

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