Hospital Defeats Disability-Discrimination Claim on Summary Judgment
Last month, a hospital in Louisiana defeated a disability-discrimination claim on summary judgment, and in doing so, provided a road map for healthcare providers defending against such claims. Rosario v. St. Tammany Parish Hospital Service District No. 1, 2019 WL 1766983 (E.D. La., April 22, 2019).
Summary of Facts
The plaintiff, a deaf individual who communicates primarily through American Sign Language (ASL), had sought a sign-language interpreter upon arriving at the hospital for an emergency. Hospital staff initially attempted to communicate with the plaintiff using Video-Remote Interpreting (VRI) but the system would disconnect from the internet and the image was blurry and choppy. Hospital staff then attempted to secure an on-site interpreter, but none was available, and so plaintiff communicated with the hospital staff using VRI for the remainder of her visit. Later, the plaintiff visited the same hospital by appointment and was provided her preferred on-site interpreter. The plaintiff later gave birth to her child by C-section.
In February 2018, the plaintiff filed suit against the hospital alleging discrimination under Title II of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. Plaintiff contended that the hospital’s failure to provide an on-site interpreter was discriminatory and that this caused her to experience fear and anxiety regarding the health of her then-unborn child. She sought damages, attorney’s fees, and injunctive relief against the hospital.
But after discovery, including expert discovery, the court ruled in favor of the hospital and granted the hospital’s motion for summary judgment.
First, the court awarded summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, because the plaintiff did not produce evidence that she intended to seek future treatment from the defendant-hospital. Next, the court awarded summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim for monetary damages, finding that the evidence did not create an issue of fact that the hospital had intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff. Nor was the evidence sufficient to preclude summary judgment under a “deliberate indifference” standard of intent, which is also sufficient to allow for monetary damages.
Instead, the court found that the defendant did attempt to accommodate plaintiff’s disability by first providing VRI and then attempting to secure an on-site interpreter. That the VRI initially malfunctioned and that hospital staff may (at worst) have been negligent in attempting to secure an on-site interpreter was not enough to establish an inference that the hospital was deliberately indifferent to the plaintiff’s needs.
Here, the hospital had the resources, training, and policies in place to respond effectively—albeit not perfectly—to the plaintiff’s needs in an emergency situation. And although this litigation went through discovery and was certainly costly, the hospital was able to defeat a claim for monetary damages and attorney’s fees where other defendants have not. It should be noted again, however, that the hospital provided an on-site interpreter in subsequent visits that were scheduled in advance. So while perfection is not the standard, a health system must continue to be vigorous in providing deaf individuals with effective communication and auxiliary aids at no charge and in a timely manner so as to satisfy a healthcare provider’s obligations under federal civil rights law.