A Greene County jury, in August of 2013, awarded Jessica Wells – a former nursing student at the Cox School of Nursing (College) who is deaf, $50,000 for a violation of The Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) after a five-day jury trial. This is an update to an earlier Post in February of 2013 that discussed the Missouri Court of Appeals decision in this same case reversing a motion for summary judgment in favor of the College resulting in the case being remanded to the trial court.
The College admitted Wells to the nursing school following a recommendation in a in-house study/evaluation, which reached the conclusion that a “… deaf/hard-of-hearing individual can be successful as both a nursing student and as a nurse, although it may be difficult to achieve that success, based upon stereotypes and prejudice․” When a plaintiff’s lawyer sees a statement like this he or she knows the Gods are smiling on your case, particularly based on the other facts in the Wells matter.
After Well’s successfully completed two semesters the College dismissed her from the nursing program stating in her dismissal letter, that her “hearing loss would substantially limit (and in some cases completely limit)…” her “… ability to safely perform clinical rotations.” The College seems to have rethought its position anticipating what would happen next when Wells reached the clinical rotations part of the program where she would be interacting with patients. Wells sued and after remand from the Court of Appeals the case was tried before a jury, which returned a $50,000 verdict for Wells.
In response to the jury verdict the interim president of the College stated that while the College offered reasonable accommodation patient safety cannot be compromised. “For example, nurses are required to use their judgment when listening to certain patient sounds, and use of an interpreter to interpret these sounds is not appropriate and is unsafe in our opinion.” Surely a complete study of this very complex matter involving communications by a world-class expert would have disclosed this opinion before the decision to admit Wells to the nursing program was made or maybe not, but once the decision was made the College needed to stick to its decision and evaluate any future action based on her performance. Obviously this is extraordinarily difficult. Making this determination after the fact looks like it is made up or a pretext for the action that was taken. Of course both parties in the Wells case had experts that offered conflicting testimony making this a fact question for the jury.
This is one of those cases where the die was cast when the initial decision was made to admit Wells to the nursing program based on the in-house study. Her successful completion of the first two semesters of the nursing program with reasonable accommodations including interpreters and her subsequent dismissal from the nursing program made it extremely unlikely that the College could ever win this case in front of a jury.
After the jury verdict the News-Leader quoted Wells as saying: “Being deaf or hard of hearing is a big challenge. But do not give up.” They also reported that she is working with deaf students and Wells is now enrolled at Missouri State University pursuing a degree.
Local governments run many programs that are covered by the ADA and while they do not usually run nursing programs there are many similarities to other programs giving public officials pause to think through the steps in a long process to be sure that the initial decision can be supported.