SCOTUS: Emotional Injury Damages Not Recoverable In Patient’s Private Rehab Act and ACA Disability Discrimination Lawsuit But Other Significant Liability Risks Remain

May 2, 2022

Today’s Supreme Court ruling that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce the disability discrimination and accommodation requirements of either the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Rehab Act”) or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) prevents health care and other businesses subject to these requirements against the risk of large emotional injury awards in private actions for discrimination based on these laws. However, health care providers and other organizations subject to these requirements should use care to maintain compliance to avoid large actual damage awards to plaintiffs bringing private lawsuits, program exclusion, penalties or other governmental sanctions or both.

Cummings Supreme Court Ruling

The May 1, 2022 United States Supreme Court ruling in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller authored by Supreme Court Justice John Roberts resulted from a suit that sought emotional distress damages brought by filed by a deaf and legally blind woman, Jane Cummings against Premier Rehab Keller after it denied her request that it provide an American Sign Language interpreter at her physical therapy sessions.  Premier Rehab told Cummings the therapist could communicate with her through other means,  Claiming Premier Rehab’s failure to provide an ASL interpreter constituted discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehab Act and Section 1557 of the ACA, Cummings sued Premier Rehab seeking various damages and other relief, including emotional distress damages.

The Supreme Court took notice that Premier Rehab was subject to these laws because its receipt of Medicare and Medicaid payments qualified as federal financial assistance triggering their applicability.

The Supreme Court affirmed the previous District Court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ rulings that emotional distress damages are not recoverable in a private action to enforce either the Rehab Act or the ACA.

The Supreme Court Majority based its decision on its finding that the Rehab Act and Act both are spending statutes that condition their offer of federal funding on a promise by the recipient not to discriminate creating what amounts essentially to a contract between the Government and the recipient of funds.  Following previously established Supreme Court precedent for “private spending clause actions,” the Court ruled the emotional distress or other remedy is not available unless “the funding recipient is on notice that by accepting federal funding, it exposes itself to liability of that nature.”

To decide whether emotional distress damages are available under the Spending Clause statutes in this case, the Court therefore asked if a prospective funding recipient deciding whether to accept
federal funds would have had “clear notice” regarding that liability. Because the two statutes are silent on the availability of emotional injury damages, the Supreme Court followed prior precedent by looking to whether the emotional damages sought by Cummings were the type of damages traditionally available in suits for breach of contract so as to put Premier Rehab and other defendants on notice of their exposure to such damages from actions under the Rehab Act or ACA.  While acknowledging some exceptional circumstances where punitive damages may be recovered where “the conduct constituting the breach is also a tort for which punitive damages are recoverable,” the Court found such damages “are generally not available for breach of contract.” Concluding that the recognized exception to the general rule was insufficient to give funding recipients the requisite notice that they could face such damages. the Supreme Court ruled that funding recipients under the Rehab Act and the ACA “have not, merely by accepting funds, implicitly consented to liability for punitive damages.” 

To read the full Majority opinion and related consenting and dissenting opinions, see here. 

Liability Risks Remain Substantial Despite Cummings Ruling

While the Supreme Court’s ruling means private litigants cannot recover emotional injury damages in discrimination actions brought to enforce the Rehabilitation Act or the ACA, health industry and other organizations remain subject to other substantial liability risks for improper discrimination in violation of those laws.  Beyond recoveries for actual damages, attorneys’ fees and costs recoverable by private litigants, covered organizations also can face substantial civil monetary penalties, program disqualification, in some instances even False Claims Act liability for billing in violation of program conditions of participation and other risks.  As federal agencies continue to make enforcement of these sanctions a priority, organization covered by either of these laws should use care to maintain appropriate compliance and risk management to ensure their ability to defend against any potential charges.  

For instance, HHS recently reaffirmed its continued commitment and prioritization of protecting disabled individuals against disability discrimination by its publication of its February 4, 2022 FAQs for Healthcare Providers during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: Federal Civil Rights Protections for Individuals with Disabilities under Section 504 and Section 1557. Published to remind health care providers of their obligations under law and provide examples of applicability, HHS clarifies in that guidance that federal civil rights laws apply to health care providers, including those administering COVID-19 testing, medical supplies, and medication. These rules also apply to entities providing hospitalization, long-term care, intensive treatments, and critical care, such as oxygen therapy and mechanical ventilators. HHS also confirm that federal civil rights laws apply to state Crisis Standard of Care plans, procedures, and related standards for triaging scarce resources that hospitals are required to follow. HHS Issues New Guidance for Health Care Providers on Civil Rights Protections for People with Disabilities. See also New Guidance to Boost Accessibility and Equity in COVID-19 Vaccine Programs (December 22, 2021); HHS Takes Action to Prevent Discrimination and Strengthen Civil Rights (November 18, 2021); HHS and DOJ Issue Guidance on “Long COVID” and Disability Rights Under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557 (July 26, 2021); OCR Provides Technical Assistance to the State of Arizona to Ensure Crisis Standards of Care Protect Against Age and Disability Discrimination (May 25, 2021); HHS Announces Prohibition on Sex Discrimination Includes Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (May 10, 2021); New Legal Guidance and Resources to Ensure — and Expand — Access to COVID-19 Vaccines for People with Disabilities and Older Adults (April 13, 2021).

HHS’ guidance announcements all include a warning like the one from OCR Director Lisa J. Pino in the February 4, 2022 announcment that “OCR will continue our robust enforcement of federal civil rights laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination, including when Crisis Standards of Care are in effect.”

The current and historical enforcement record of HHS demonstrates the teeth behind this commitment. OCR has a long and continuing history of extracting substantial settlements or civil monetary penalties from health care or other organizations receiving Medicare, Medicaid or other federal funds administered by HSS for engaging in conduct OCR finds inconsistent with the ACA or Rehabilitation Act discrimination requirements. See, e.g., Settlement Agreement Reached with Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families to Address Discrimination Against Parents with Disabilities (March 30, 2022); Massachusetts Healthcare Provider Resolves Allegations of Discriminatory Practices Regarding Patients Needing Opioid Use Disorder Treatment (December 22, 2021); HHS Office for Civil Rights and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts Settle Disability Discrimination Case with Baystate Medical Center (November 17, 2021); HHS Office for Civil Rights and U.S. Attorney’s Office Settle Disability Discrimination Case with Backus Hospital (October 5, 2021); Rhode Island, Massachusetts Healthcare Provider Resolves Allegations of Discriminatory Practices Regarding Patients Needing Opioid Use Disorder Treatment (August 9, 2021).

These OCR guidance and enforcement actions and similar activities by other federal agencies send a strong message that OCR and other federal agencies will continue and expand their zealous investigation and enforcement of disability and other violations by health care providers and other public and private organizations covered by the Rehabilitation Act, the ACA or other federal discrimination and civil rights laws. Health care providers and others regulated by these federal discrimination laws should consider auditing the adequacy of existing practices, reaffirming their own and their business partners’ compliance, retraining workforce and taking other appropriate steps to help prevent illegal discrimination within their organization and to position their organization to respond and defend against potential discrimination investigations or charges.

For Additional Information Or Assistance

If you need have questions or need assistance with health, health or other insurance, employee benefit, payroll, investment or other data, systems or other privacy or security related risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.  Longtime scribe for the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits agency meeting with OCR and author of leading publications on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns, Ms. Stamer regularly assists clients and provides input to Congress, OCR and other agencies, publishes and speaks extensively on medical and other privacy and cybersecurity, health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.

Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications. Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance frequently appear in medical privacy related publications of a broad range of health care, health plan and other industry publications.  She also is a highly-sought out speaker on privacy and data security who serves on the planning faculty and speaks for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health industry, health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.  You can get more information about her HIPAA and other experience here.  If you need assistance with these or other compliance concerns, wish to inquire about arranging for compliance audit or training, or need legal representation on other matters, e-mail Ms. Stamer or call (214) 452-8297.  

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Biden-Harris Administration to Expand Vaccination Requirements for Health Care and Many Other Employers

September 9, 2021

All Medicare and Medicaid certified health care facilities, and a broad range of other employers must prepare to meet impending new federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates announced by the Biden-Harris Administration today.

According to today’s announcements all healthcare facilities participating in Medicare or Medicaid or employing 100 or more employees will be required to ensure all staff are vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Biden-Harris Administration says the new health industry COVID-19 vaccine mandates will be implemented through emergency regulations to be issued in October.

According to today’s announcement, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service (“CMS”) in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) is developing an Interim Final Rule with Comment Period that will be issued in October that will extend vaccine mandates originally announced last month for all Medicare and Medicaid participating nursing home workers to include hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings, and home health agencies, among others, as a condition for participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. See .

The announcement of the vaccine mandates for healthcare workers coincides with the Biden-Harris Administration’s announcement of sweeping new vaccine mandates for all government workers, government contractors and employers employing more than 100 employees.

The two mandates will force most health care facilities to impose mask mandates for all staff in order to meet the requirement all staff be vaccinated.

CMS and CDC say the decision was based on the continued and growing spread of the virus in health care settings, especially in parts of the U.S. with higher incidence of COVID-19. They claim the action will protect patients of the 50,000 providers and over 17 million health care workers in Medicare and Medicaid certified facilities.

According to the CDC, nursing homes with an overall staff vaccination rate of 75% or lower experience higher rates of preventable COVID infection. In CMS’s review of available data, the agency is seeing lower staff vaccination rates among hospital and End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) facilities. To combat this issue, CMS is using its authority to establish vaccine requirements for all providers and suppliers that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Vaccinations have proven to reduce the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 and are effective against the Delta variant.

In it’s announcement of the impending vaccination requirements, CDC urged health care facilities to prepare now to meet the new mandate in October. CMS expects certified Medicare and Medicaid facilities to act in the best interest of patients and staff by complying with new COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

CDC also urged any health care workers employed in these facilities who are not currently vaccinated are urged to begin the process immediately and facilities to use all available resources to support employee vaccinations, including employee education and clinics, as they work to meet new federal requirements.

While legal challenges to the mandate requirements are likely, most facilities that have not already adopted vaccine mandates are expected to adopt these mandates rather than risk losing eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement and other sanctions.

Beyondprogram disqualification and attendant financial pressures, announcement of the new vaccine mandates adds vaccination to the list of safety safeguards that healthcare facilities as employers can expect to be required to enforce as part of the occupational safety rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (”OSHA”).

OSHA already is sanctioning employers for violating COVID-19 related OSHA requirements. For instance, OSHA nailed Lakewood Resource and Referral Center Inc., dba Center for Education Medicine and Dentistry (CHEMED) with heavy fines for allegedly violating applicable COVID-19 safety guidelines in January, 2021.

In a July 23, 2021 citation letter, OSH proposes to fine CHEMED $273,064.00 for willfully violating OSHA by not providing a medical evaluation to determine each employee’s ability to use a N95 respirator, before the employee was fit tested or required to use the respirator in the workplace to protect against SARS-CoV-2 virus while testing suspected COVID-19 individuals.

In addition to the proposed fine, the citation also orders CHEMED to take a series of corrective actions and to post notices in the workplace informing workers of the violation. 

Along with the CHEMED citation, OSH also cited a staffing agency contracted to provide nursing staffing to CHEMED, Homecare Therapies for also failing to conduct medical evaluations and fit tests. It received two violations and a proposed fine of $13,653.

In the face of these potential consequences, most covered health care facilities and other employers impacted by the mandate are likely to implement mandates unless and until these requirements are struct down by the courts or withdrawn.

Assuming the Administration follows appropriate procedures to adopt the rules, most legal commentators do not expect the legal challenges opposing the mandate orders to be successful in the courts particularly after the Supreme Court refused to overturn or hear arguments for overturning a unanimous decision of a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Klassen v. Trustees of Indiana University that refused to enjoin a vaccine mandate imposed by Indiana University as a condition of student or staff in person participation in classes or other activities.

While most healthcare and other covered businesses are not expected to challenge the rules, compliance us likely to trigger backlash from some unvaccinated workers strongly opposed to becoming vaccinated. Employers may find that some employees will resign their employment or take other tactics to avoid becoming vaccinated. Even those who elect to become vaccinated to retain their employment are likely to express opposition and dissatisfaction that could create liability exposures for the employers if it becomes a basis for retaliation claim.

Employers in Texas and certain other states that have adopted rules restricting or prohibiting vaccine, mask or other mandates also may face challenges based on the state rules.

In light of these and other uncertainties and challenges, Healthcare and Other or Employers generally should seek legal advice and assistance from legal counsel experienced with the relevant health care, labor and employment, privacy and other concerns.

More Information

This article is republished by permission of the author, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  To review the original work, see here.

Solutions Law Press, Inc. invites you to receive future updates by registering here and participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press, Inc. LinkedIn SLP Health Care Risk Management & Operations GroupHR & Benefits Update Compliance Group, and/or Coalition for Responsible Health Care Policy. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating your profile here. For specific information about the these or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years working as an on demand, special project, consulting, general counsel or other basis with domestic and international business, charitable, community and government organizations of all types, sizes and industries and their leaders on labor and employment and other workforce compliance, performance management, internal controls and governance, compensation and benefits, regulatory compliance, investigations and audits, change management and restructuring, disaster preparedness and response and other operational, risk management and tactical concerns.

Most widely recognized for her work with health care, life sciences, insurance and data and technology organizations, she also has worked extensively with health plan and insurance, employee benefits, financial, transportation, manufacturing, energy, real estate, accounting and other services, public and private academic and other education, hospitality, charitable, civic and other business, government and community organizations. and their leaders.

Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising, representing, defending, and training domestic and international public and private business, charitable, community and governmental organizations and their leaders, employers, employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and service providers, insurers, and others has published and spoken extensively on these concerns. As part of these involvements, she has worked, published and spoken extensively on these and other human resources, employee benefits, compensation, worker classification and other workforce and other services; insurance; health care; workers’ compensation and occupational disease; business reengineering, disaster and distress; and many other performance, risk management, compliance, public policy and regulatory affairs, and other operational concerns. 

A former lead advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension  project, Ms. Stamer also has worked internationally and domestically as an advisor to business, community and government leaders on these and other legislative, regulatory and other legislative and regulatory design, drafting, interpretation and enforcement, as well as regularly advises and represents organizations on the design, administration and defense of workforce, employee benefit and compensation, safety, discipline, reengineering, regulatory and operational compliance and other management practices and actions.

Ms. Stamer also serves in leadership of a broad range of professional and civic organizations and provides insights and thought leadership through her extensive publications, public speaking and volunteer service with a diverse range of organizations including as Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Intellectual Property Section Law Practice Management Committee, Vice Chair of the International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Past ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group Chair and Council Representative and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, past Region IV Chair and national Society of Human Resources Management Consultant Forum Board Member,  past Texas Association of Business BACPAC Chair, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation and many others.

For more information about these concerns or Ms. Stamer’s work, experience, involvements, other publications, or programs, see www.cynthiastamer.com,  on  Facebook, on LinkedIn or Twitter or e-mail here.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns.

©2021 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™


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