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Rehabilitation Act claim by deaf hospital patient reinstated

The word interpreter in American sign language

A claim that a hospital violated the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by failing to provide an American Sign Language Interpreter to a deaf patient has been reinstated by a federal appeals court, reversing a lower court’s ruling.

Kathleen Biondo, who is profoundly deaf, sought treatment at Buffalo General Medical Center in Buffalo, New York, in 2014 for recurrent fainting episodes, according to Monday’s ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in Kathleen Biondo v. Kaledia Health, c/b/a/ Buffalo General Medical Center.

She and her husband, who is not hearing impaired, unsuccessfully requested an ASL interpreter from hospital staff several times during her six-day stay, according to the ruling. Ms. Biondo filed suit in U.S. District Court in Rochester, New York, on charges including violation of the Rehabilitation Act. The court granted the hospital summary judgment dismissing the case, which was reinstated by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel.

The Rehabilitation Act prohibits programs or activities receiving federal funds from excluding or discriminating against persons based on a disability, according to the ruling.

“This appeal concerns whether and when hospital staff members may be considered to be acting as ‘officials’ or ‘policymakers’ of the hospital so that their conduct may be attributed to the hospital and thereby establish the plaintiff’s right to damages on the ground that the defendant institution was ‘deliberately indifferent’ to a violation of the RA,” said the ruling.

The ruling said compensatory damages “are available only if a defendant was deliberately indifferent to the potential violation of the RA in that someone at the hospital ‘had actual knowledge of discrimination against the (plaintiff), had authority to correct the discrimination, and failed to respond adequately,’” said the ruling, citing an earlier case.

During the hospitalization, in addition to a nurse manager, “Biondo interacted with a number of other doctors, nurses, and staff that she claims were deliberately indifferent,” said the ruling. The record supports an inference the staff “had actual knowledge of the potential RA violation” and it is “uncontested the hospital did not act in response to the Biondos’ requests,” the ruling said.

The hospital had an “interpreter policy” that said patients had the right to free deaf/hearing impaired services, the ruling added.

“Taken together, the Interpreter Policy and (the nurse manager‘s) testimony create a dispute of fact as to whether BGMC hospital staff — including its doctors and nurses — had the authority to correct the deprivation of Biondo’s rights by calling or requesting an interpreter for her,” it said, in vacating the lower court’s ruling and remanding the case of further proceedings.

The court “made a fantastic decision,” said Ms. Biondo’s attorney, Andrew Rozynski, a partner with Eisenberg & Baum LLP in New York, which specializes in representing those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The hospital’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

In a comparable case, last year a federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and held a Florida hospital may have violated federal discrimination law when it delayed providing a deaf patient with an American Sign Language interpreter. 




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