SPRINGFIELD, MO—Michael Argenyi is not the only would-be health care provider who took his college to court on charges that it had failed to accommodate his hearing loss as required by law. In Springfield, MO, Jessica Wells, who had been studying for an associate’s degree in nursing, sued Cox College of Nursing after it threw her out of the program after two semesters on grounds that because of her hearing loss she could not “safely perform clinical rotations.”
In the Argenyi case, which has received much attention in the media (including on Hearing Views and Hearing and Kids), the plaintiff, a deaf medical student who has a cochlear implant, accused Creighton University Medical School in Omaha for failing to provide all the accommodations to which he was entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. He said that because of Creighton’s action, he had to spend $100,000 of his own money to pay for the interpreters and transcription services that he needed to keep up with his classmates.
Argenyi’s charges that Creighton had discriminated against him were originally dismissed by a U.S. District Court in Nebraska. However, in July 2013, a Federal Appeals Court reversed that ruling and said a trial in the case should go forward. That decision increases the likelihood that Creighton will reach an out-of-court settlement with Argenyi rather than spend the money and take the risk of a trial.
NURSING STUDENT DISMISSED HALF-WAY TO HER DEGREE
In the case of Jessica Wells, officials at Cox College were aware when she was admitted her into the nursing program that she had a hearing loss that was only partially addressed by hearing aids. However, they did not initially realize the full extent of her disability. In 2007, her first year in the two-year program, the college provided her with accommodations, including volunteer note-takers, recordings, and ASL interpreters, that helped her complete her course and clinical work.
However, when Wells asked for similar accommodations for the first semester of 2008, the college instead dismissed her from the nursing program. In its dismissal letter, Cox contended that her “hearing loss would substantially limit (and in some cases completely limit) [her] ability to safely perform clinical rotations.”
PLAINTIFF SUES AND WINS
In January 2009, Wells sued the college, saying that it had “failed to provide [her] with reasonable accommodations so that she could participate in its Nursing Program despite her disability.” In its response, the college said that the request for interpreters “in the clinical setting pose[d] a direct threat to the health or safety of plaintiff and others, including hospital patients.”
In May 2011, the college filed a motion for summary dismissal of the suit, which the Circuit Court of Greene County (Missouri) granted. Wells then appealed that decision, and in October 2012, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, reversed the dismissal and sent the case back to the Circuit Court for trial.
In its ruling, the Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff’s contention that the college “failed to present objective evidence to back up its subjective belief” that Wells’s participation in its nursing program “would pose an unspecified threat to safety.”
A trial was held and, on August 8, 2013, a Greene County jury decided that Wells should have been allowed her to complete the nursing program and provided the accommodations that she needed to do so. She was awarded $50,000 in the case. Cox College has not said whether or not it will appeal.
According to the Kansas City Star, Wells has chosen not to return to Cox College. She now works with deaf students and is pursuing a degree at Missouri State University.