Johns Hopkins Hospital violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when officials rescinded a job offer to a deaf nurse after she requested a sign-language interpreter, a U.S. District Court judge ruled last week.
Joseph B. Espo, a lawyer for the nurse, Lauren Searls, called it an "important victory" that could send a message to other medical institutions about the capabilities of deaf workers.
Hopkins had told Searls it was a cost issue in a letter, but in its response to the lawsuit, officials called her employment both a financial hardship and a threat to patient safety, Espo said. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake rejected those arguments, he said.
In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, Hopkins spokeswoman Jania Matthews said, "Johns Hopkins Health System is an equal opportunity employer and believes strongly in diversity and inclusion. We make every effort to honor reasonable requests for accommodation in the workplace and will continue to do so. As a long-standing practice, we do not discuss pending or ongoing litigation."
Searls had just graduated in 2012 from Hopkins' School of Nursing and said she was encouraged to apply for a job on a unit where she had done a clinical rotation as a student, according to the lawsuit. She applied and was offered a job the next day.
She had been supplied with interpreters while a student in the nursing school, but when she asked for such services as an employee of the hospital, she was told the cost wasn't budgeted and couldn't be accommodated, her suit said. Hopkins initially estimated the services could cost $120,000 annually, twice the starting salary of a nurse on the unit, according to the lawsuit.
Searls went on to find a nursing position in January 2013 at the University of Rochester Medical Center's Strong Memorial Hospital, which supplied her with an interpreter and where she continues to work. But in 2014, she filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act against Hopkins for lost wages, other damages and attorney's fees.
In the suit, she said she would need fewer interpreting resources than she needed while in school. One interpreter would do, which Espo said would cost about $40,000 based on documents obtained from Hopkins. But the issue for the judge, Espo said, was that Hopkins wrongly compared the cost of the interpreter with the nursing salary when it should have compared the cost and hardship to its own budget.
The lawsuit said the budget for the unit in the hospital where Searls would have worked was $3.4 million.
The judge also said there was no evidence of a threat to patient safety by using an interpreter untrained in identifying medical equipment alarms, for example, and noted Searls had been working in Rochester with an interpreter.
Medical institutions in Maryland have faced other criticism from the deaf community. Some patients have complained that interpretation services are inadequate at hospitals around the state. Officials in the Governor's Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing have said it is working with hospitals to improve those services and looking at establishing regulations to ensure that only qualified and perhaps only licensed interpreters are used.
Advocates said Congress has repeatedly reaffirmed the rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, as well as those of people with other disabilities, to "live a full life, equal to that of people without disabilities." A full life includes working, said Caroline Jackson, staff attorney for the National Association of the DeafLaw and Advocacy Center.
Medical institutions routinely support the rights of deaf people, and nationally there are many examples of deaf people working as nurses and doctors, and in other health care careers, including at Hopkins, said Caroline Jackson, staff attorney at the National Association of the DeafLaw and Advocacy Center.
"It is undisputed that Ms. Searls was and is an excellent nurse, which no doubt led to the decision to hire her in the first place," Jackson said. "It is a much better use of society's resources to support Ms. Searls as she excels at nursing, pays taxes and contributes to the overall health of our community, than it is to shut her out from public life and force her to live off society's largesse — for example, public assistance."
Espo said the decision doesn't reflect a larger problem with the entire Hopkins system.
"If the hospital had treated Ms. Searls in the same manner as the nursing school had, she would be working there now," Espo said.
A trial to determine damages has not been scheduled.