Federal Appeals Panel Says Deaf Med Student Can Sue

By MARGERY A. BECK | January 18, 2013

A jury should be allowed to decide a deaf medical school student’s discrimination lawsuit against Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., a federal appeals court panel said Tuesday.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a lower federal court should not have granted the private Jesuit university’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss Michael Argenyi’s lawsuit.

Argenyi was accepted to Creighton’s medical school in 2008 after disclosing on his application that he was hearing-impaired. Argenyi requested certain accommodations for his disability to allow him to follow lectures, participate in labs and communicate with patients.

Argenyi was an infant when he began using hearing aids for his disability, court records say, but his parents primarily communicated with him through spoken language. Argenyi does not know sign language, relying instead on “cued speech,” which uses hand signals to distinguish sounds that appear the same on a speaker’s lips.

While an undergraduate student at Seattle University in Washington state, Argenyi used a system that transcribes spoken words into text on a computer screen. With the help of that system and a cued speech interpreter – both of which were provided by Seattle University – Argenyi graduated in 2008 with a 3.87 GPA.

The lawsuit says Creighton did provide some assistance, such as a system in which professors wore a microphone that emitted frequencies to be picked up by Argenyi’s cochlear implants. But Argenyi said the system was not adequate to accommodate his hearing disability, and one doctor determined it actually reduced Argenyi’s ability to understand his professors.

The university repeatedly refused Argenyi’s main requests for the transcription system and interpreters, the lawsuit says, leading Argenyi to take out more than $110,000 in loans to pay for the assistance himself in his first two years of medical school.

The lawsuit says Argenyi left his third year of medical school when the university refused to allow him to have an interpreter to interact with clinical patients – even if he paid for the interpreter himself.

“They were concerned about protected health information … and (said) that once he graduated, he shouldn’t be using interpreters in the real world,” said attorney Dianne DeLair with Disability Rights Nebraska, who represented Argenyi.

The university argued the accommodations Argenyi sought were too expensive and that the documentation he submitted detailing the accommodations he required was inadequate, DeLair said.

She said Creighton’s stance seemed to be that someone who is deaf should not be a doctor.

“I think that’s exactly what they were trying to say,” DeLair said. “Once they figured out he needed an interpreter, I don’t think they wanted him there.”

A message left Tuesday for Scott Moore, an Omaha attorney for Creighton University, was not immediately returned.

On Tuesday, the 8th Circuit panel said an Omaha federal judge erred when he granted Creighton’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and when he concluded that Argenyi had failed to show his requested accommodations were required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“At this stage the record supports Argenyi’s claim that he was unable to follow lectures and classroom dialogue or successfully communicate with clinical patients,” 8th Circuit Judge Diana Murphy wrote. “From such evidence a reasonable fact finder could determine that Argenyi was denied an opportunity to benefit from medical school equal to that of his nondisabled classmates.”

Creighton University could ask the full 8th Circuit court to reconsider the case.

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