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Hopkins violated ADA by not hiring interpreter, judge rules

Johns Hopkins Hospital can be held liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act for rescinding a job offer to a deaf nurse by claiming that paying for a sign language interpreter was cost-prohibitive, a federal judge has ruled.

Lauren Searls later found employment at a New York hospital where she was provided an interpreter and has worked successfully, according to her attorney.

“Ms. Searls is very happy at the vindication of her right and the right of other individuals who are deaf to work in health care,” said Joe Espo of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

Searls graduated from the Hopkins’ School of Nursing in 2012 and was encouraged to apply for a position in the unit of the hospital where she completed two clinical rotations, according to the opinion written last week by U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake.

Searls can read lips and speak but understands and communicates best through sign language, according to the opinion, and the school provided an interpreter during her clinical rotations.

After she was offered the position, emails between hospital administrators acknowledged the department could not afford an interpreter and the accommodation would not be possible, leading the job offer to be rescinded in September 2012.

In a statement Wednesday, a Hopkins spokeswoman declined to comment on the ongoing litigation but said the hospital is an equal opportunity employer and makes “every effort to honor reasonable requests for accommodation in the workplace and will continue to do so.”

Blake ruled Hopkins did not engage in any individualized assessment of the costs associated with hiring Searls and providing the accommodation but instead “relied on stereotypes or generalizations about deafness.”

Espo said the case is unique because there are records of the employer stating Searls’ disability was the only reason for their decision.

“Unfortunately, I think, people with all kinds of disabilities apply for jobs, they are one of a number of applicants, somebody else gets the job, and the employer says, ‘We picked person X because they’re more qualified than person Y, not because person Y is deaf,’” Espo said.

In Searls’ case, the emails showed “a completely unfiltered look at how the decision was made,” he said.

“Nobody ever said that there was any issue about Ms. Searls quality as a nurse other than her being deaf,” Espo added.

Searls continued applying for work after losing the job offer, according to Espo, but the incident was “disheartening and demoralizing.”

A hearing on damages has not yet been set, according to Espo, but he plans to argue that Searls is entitled to lost pay from the date she would have been hired until the date she began her new job and any difference in pay for at least some period as well as emotional distress damages.

Improper calculation of hardship

Blake ruled an interpreter was a reasonable accommodation to facilitate Searls’ work but would not be performing key job functions for her. Hopkins argued, however, the cost of employing an interpreter would create an undue hardship, a defense recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To demonstrate undue hardship, the employer must show circumstances special to their workplace and budget, according to the opinion.

Hopkins argued the budget of the unit where Searls would work did not include an allowance for ADA accommodations, but Blake cited case law that the employer’s budget for accommodations is irrelevant.

The relevant measure is available funding for the entire enterprise, according to Espo, which in Hopkins’ case was an operational budget of $1.7 billion in 2012.

“Johns Hopkins Hospital was looking at the wrong metric to decide what was an undue hardship,” Espo said.

Hopkins also argued hiring Searls could pose a risk to the health and safety of others because many alarms were only auditory. However, according to the opinion, this defense was not raised until the litigation and was not part of the explanation sent to Searls when the offer was rescinded.

The case is Lauren Searls v. Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1:14-cv-02983-CBB.