Refusal to Provide Interpreter Results in an Award of Monetary Damages, Injunctive Relief, and Attorney’s Fees

On August 28, 2018, the Southern District of New York awarded monetary damages, injunctive relief, and attorney’s fees to a plaintiff who filed a discrimination complaint under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. See Michelle Puerner v. Hudson Spine and Pain Medicine P.C., 2018 WL 4103491 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 28, 2018).

Factual background

Because the defendant, a spine and pain management practice, chose not to file an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint, the plaintiff’s allegations were deemed admitted as follows. The plaintiff was a deaf woman who communicates primarily in American Sign Language. She was referred to the pain management clinic by her physician, and she requested that a sign-language interpreter be provided to her. Despite her multiple requests, the clinic repeatedly refused to accommodate her request, and instead informed the plaintiff that she would need to provide her own interpreter at her own cost. When the plaintiff arrived at the clinic for her appointment, she was not able to communicate effectively with the clinic staff, and so she left the clinic. The plaintiff alleged that she was unable to participate equally in her healthcare, that she was humiliated, and that she was discriminated against in violation of Federal law.

The Court’s legal analysis

Even though the plaintiff’s allegations were deemed admitted, the Court still engaged in the substantive analysis of Federal nondiscrimination law to decide if the plaintiff was entitled to any relief. The Court’s analysis is therefore worth analyzing carefully.

First, the Court easily concluded that the plaintiff, who is deaf, was a qualified individual with a disability. The Court then ruled that she had sufficiently alleged that the clinic was a place of public accommodation because it received federal assistance. The court also ruled that the plaintiff suffered discrimination by being denied her requested services and that she was therefore denied the ability to “equally participate in her own healthcare.”

The Court then addressed whether the plaintiff was entitled to damages. First, the Court concluded that injunctive relief was appropriate in this case, because the clinic refused to provide qualified sign language interpreters as a matter of policy. Thus, the Court ordered the defendant to take the following four steps:

  1. Develop and implement a policy of prohibiting discrimination against deaf or hard of hearing individuals;
  2. Develop and implement a policy requiring the provision of an onsite interpreter any time one is requested by a deaf or hard of hearing individual “as soon as practicable” and “in all services offered by” the clinic;
  3. Develop and implement a policy that ensures that the clinic communicates its policy to all deaf or hard of hearing individuals; and
  4. Train all employees and staff on a regular basis about the rights of deaf or hard of hearing individuals under Federal nondiscrimination law.

The Court then concluded that monetary damages and attorney’s fees were also warranted here, because the clinic had acted with deliberate indifference as to the plaintiff’s rights. This deliberate indifference, the Court noted, is tantamount to intentional discrimination under Federal law. The Court thus referred the matter to a Magistrate Judge for hearing on plaintiff’s damages.

Conclusion: Healthcare providers should take steps now to comply with Federal nondiscrimination law

To avoid similar lawsuits, healthcare providers should take immediate action to comply with their obligations under Federal law. These include the following steps.

  1. Provide auxiliary aids and services to individuals where appropriate, in a timely manner, and free of charge;
  2. Train staff, employees, and physicians to identify the need for, and to use, all available auxiliary aids, such as Video Remote Interpretation services;
  3. Ensure that all electronic health programs are accessible to individuals with disabilities;
  4. Designate an employee responsible for compliance with Section 1557 of the ACA;
  5. Adopt the required grievance procedure; and
  6. Post the required notice and taglines.

Failure to take these steps and others may expose healthcare providers to discrimination liability under Section 1557 of the ACA and other Federal statutes. Other steps are required to avoid discrimination liability on the basis of other protected classes, such as national origin, as explained in more detail here.

Drew Stevens is a litigation associate at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a member of the firm’s Post-Acute Care and Hospital and Health Systems Industry Teams. He is a frequent author and speaker on the topic of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act and its nondiscrimination requirements.

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