Bill seeks to enforce federal anti-discrimination standards in state law

By Peter Hancock 
Capitol News Illinois

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and Charles Petrof, senior attorney for Access Living, testify before a House committee last week in favor of House Bill 2248. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)

SPRINGFIELD – In response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting the ability of people to recover damages in federal court for certain discrimination claims, Democrats in the Illinois House are pushing a bill to allow the recovery of those damages in state court.

House Bill 2248, dubbed the “Civil Rights Remedies Restoration Act,” passed out of a House committee on Wednesday, March 1 and is now awaiting action by the full House.

The bill comes in response to the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in the case of Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC. In a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the court held that a plaintiff cannot recover emotional distress damages in cases against private companies or organizations that aim to enforce either the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Affordable Care Act, both of which prohibit recipients of federal funds from engaging in discrimination.

The case involved a federally funded rehabilitation center in Texas that refused to provide a sign language interpreter to a deaf and legally blind patient who had asked for one.

For decades, Congress has built into laws governing many federal programs provisions that say recipients of funds under those programs may not discriminate based on protected categories such as race, age, gender, religion or disability.

“For the last 50 years, the federal government has had a deal that if you receive federal funds, you cannot discriminate on the basis of disability,” Charles Petrof, senior attorney for Access Living, which is pushing the bill, said during committee testimony. “And last year in April, the Supreme Court upended that deal with the Cummings decision.”

In addition to the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, similar provisions are found in the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One of the main methods of enforcing those provisions has been the ability of people who believe they’ve been discriminated against to sue and collect compensation for damages – both actual, monetary damages and noneconomic damages such as “emotional distress.” But with the Cummings decision, Petrof said, those antidiscrimination standards have become almost unenforceable.

“What’s sort of unique in the Cummings decision is that the Supreme Court is taking away rights in a very wonky way,” Petrof said during a separate interview. “It leaves the rights on the books; it just makes it practically impossible to enforce them.”

Another enforcement option available to the federal government is to disqualify a service provider from participating in a program and deny them federal funding. But Petrof described that as “a nuclear option” that is rarely ever used.

Under the proposed bill, violations of those federal antidiscrimination standards would also become violations of Illinois state law, and Illinois plaintiffs would be able to sue in state court and collect a minimum of $4,000 in damages for each violation.

Petrof said other states, including California and Florida, have adopted similar legislation making state courts available for enforcement of federal antidiscrimination standards, especially in the area of disability access to public accommodations.

The bill’s sponsors include five members of the House Progressive Caucus, including its chief sponsor Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago. But the unanimous vote in the House Immigration and Human Rights Committee on Wednesday indicates it may have bipartisan support in the full House.

For Cassidy, pushing back against decisions of the majority-conservative Supreme Court is nothing new. She also has led a working group of lawmakers crafting state responses to the high court’s decision last summer in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and concluded there is no federal constitutional right to abortion.

In an interview after the March 1 committee hearing, Cassidy said if the court continues to chip away at other longstanding legal precedents and protections, there could be more state-level legislation to keep those protections in place in Illinois.

“I think that everybody’s looking at these workarounds, right?” she said. “My Dobbs working group is completely about that. So it wouldn’t surprise me.”