On April 5, 2023, NWLC joined an amicus brief submitted by a group of 14 disability rights and other civil rights organizations to the Eleventh Circuit in A.W. v. Coweta County School District in support of 4 disabled students—A.W., E.M., M.F., and D.G.—who sued their Georgia school district under Title II of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). A federal district court held that they could recover neither emotional distress damages (citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Cummings) nor other compensatory damages that were not based on emotional distress.
The amicus brief explains that the district court erred on both counts. First, Cummings prohibited emotional distress damages only under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), statutes that were enacted under Congress’s Spending Clause authority. In contrast, Congress enacted the ADA under its Fourteenth Amendment and Commerce powers and never intended for emotional distress damages to be foreclosed under the ADA. Second, the Supreme Court prohibited emotional distress damages under Section 504 and the ACA because the Court has held that Spending Clause statutes operate as a quasi-contract between the federal government and recipients of federal financial assistance, and in Cummings the Court concluded that emotional distress is generally not compensable under contract law. But there is no plausible reading of Cummings that extends this prohibition to other types of compensatory damages, which are traditionally widely available under contract law. In summary, the Eleventh Circuit must reverse the district court’s decision to ensure full enforcement of the ADA and to protect the ability of victims of disability discrimination—and indeed, all forms of discrimination—to seek justice in the courts.