Appeals court rules in favor of deaf parents of cancer patient
By Filipa Ioannou, Staff Writer
September 3, 2015
A federal appellate court has ruled in favor of a hearing-impaired South Texas couple who sued a hospital for failure to provide adequate interpretive services during their daughter’s cancer treatments.
The couple, Rolando and Miriam Pérez, seeks an injunction that would force the hospital, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg, to provide more comprehensive accommodations for the deaf under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 5th Circuit Court ruling Friday returns the case to the district court, where a judge initially decided in favor of the hospital in a summary judgment. A summary judgment indicates that in the eyes of the court, the material facts of a case are clear enough that a full trial isn’t necessary to make a decision.
According to court documents, Miriam Pérez is deaf and communicates only through the use of American Sign Language. Her husband is deaf in one ear and hearing-impaired in the other, and communicates primarily in ASL. The couple began seeking care for their daughter at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in January 2011 when she was 4 months old.
The Pérezes said that throughout 2011 and for periods in 2012 during their daughter’s treatment, the hospital repeatedly failed to provide them with an interpreter to help them communicate with hospital employees. On other occasions, the couple had to wait more than a day before they could see an interpreter. They sued the hospital in March 2013, claiming it was violating the ADA.
Doctors Hospital at Renaissance is a doctor-owned hospital that has been ranked first in Hidalgo County and 17th in the state by U.S. News & World Report.
The hospital has argued that the couple’s difficulties and the hospital’s past shortcomings are not sufficient to suggest they are at risk of future harm, the standard needed to grant an injunction on behalf of a private party under the ADA.
In April 2014, the daughter was again diagnosed with cancer, and this time, doctors ordered an 80-week course of chemotherapy, according to court documents. The hospital had begun to offer the family access to video remote interpreting machines in late 2013, but according to Rolando and Miriam Pérez, the machines sometimes malfunctioned; other times, hospital staff did not know what the machines were.
VRI machines essentially function by providing video-chat with remote sign language interpreters. VRI is widely viewed as an imperfect technology by advocacy groups such as the National Center for the Deaf, which argues that in medical contexts, VRI should not be used as a wholesale substitute for on-site interpreters, but rather a stopgap measure until such interpreters become available. The effectiveness of VRI also relies on hospital staff receiving adequate training to understand the technology, a potential shortcoming that has come up in numerous recent lawsuits across the country.
Norma Teran, the hospital’s executive vice president for nursing, testified in 2014 that she could not find any hospital training sessions devoted to accommodating the deaf and hearing-impaired, and that the hospital’s ADA compliance policy needed to be revised.
It was this lack of training and failure to revise policies that, according to the appellate court’s ruling, “creates a possible inference that the plaintiffs’ problems with the provision of auxiliary services will continue in the future.”
The Pérez family is represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project, which recently partnered with ADAPT, a disability-rights group, to sue 21 Texas businesses for violation of the ADA earlier this year.
“Policies and training are part of what is required under the law when accommodating people with disabilities. This is far from the first type of case we’ve seen in which hospitals, other public services like police departments and even courts have not been providing proper accommodations or auxiliary aids like interpreters and VRI machines,” said Wayne Krause Yang, legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“This sets an important precedent for the state of Texas and the entire 5th Circuit that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public accommodations have to do more than just not discriminate. They have to actually provide effective communication for people with hearing disabilities, and there is little doubt that this precedent will extend to people with visual and other disabilities as well,” he continued.
Kelli Quin, a spokeswoman for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, said via email that the hospital does not comment on pending litigation, but that “Doctors Hospital at Renaissance remains committed to providing the highest standard of medical care and ensuring equal access to care for all patients.”