Keywords: higher education, discrimination, Title III of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, auxiliary aids and services
Summary: Drawing national attention and relying on the Eleventh Circuit for guidance, the Eight Circuit determined that colleges and universities that are public accommodations and receive federal funding must furnish students with disabilities reasonable auxiliary aids and services so that they have an equal opportunity to gain a like or equal education as their peers without disabilities, not merely to prevent students with disabilities from being effectively excluded from the school.
Michael Argenyi, a medical student at Creighton University, sued the school for violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Argenyi has bilateral profound sensorineural hearing loss. He does not know sign language and relies on cued speech and a cochlear implant to communicate.
Argenyi completed his undergraduate studies at Seattle University, where with the assistance of Communication Access Realtime Transcription (“CART”) he graduated with a 3.87 G.P.A. In 2009, he applied to Creighton Medical school, indicating on his application that he was hearing impaired. Both Argenyi and his doctor, Dr. Backous, requested that he receive CART, a cued speech interpreter, and an FM system, which transmits sound directly into his cochlear implant as an accommodation. The school informed Argenyi that they would only be providing him with the FM system. Shortly before classes began, Argenyi again requested the combination of CART, a cued speech interpreter, and the FM system, but this request was denied by Creighton University.
Argenyi began classes and tried the FM system for two weeks. Then Argenyi wrote the school informing them that the FM system was inadequate and that he would obtain CART for himself. Creighton replied that the school would provide enhanced note taking services. As a result Argenyi brought this lawsuit and paid $53,000 for CART for his first year of school. An expert witness who tested the FM system for Argenyi reported that he likely only heard 38% of speech during class.
Prior to his second year of medical school, Argenyi again requested CART, a cued speech interpreter, and the FM system as an accommodation. Creighton responded by offering to provide an interpreter for lectures and a seat next to the instructor for small group instructions. Argenyi tried this accommodation; however he found it inadequate. As a result, he purchased CART again for his second year of school at a cost of $61,000. The school also refused to allow Argenyi to use an interpreter during his clinical courses, even if he paid for it himself. The school changed their stance on this during settlement negotiations; however, after the settlement talks ended they again refused to allow Argenyi to use an interpreter. Although he passed his clinical course and all other courses, Argenyi took a leave of absence after his second year.
The district court granted summary judgment to Creighton University after combining Argenyi’s two discrimination claims. The district court ruled that Argenyi did not present enough evidence to show that his requested accommodations were necessary. Argenyi alleged in an affidavit that he could not follow class lectures without CART and interpreters, and could not communicate during clinics without an interpreter. However, the court did not allow Argenyi’s affidavit to be used as evidence and therefore found his claims unsupported. Also, the district court interpreted the ADA to require a plaintiff to effectively have been excluded from a school to prove discrimination. Since Argenyi had attended Creighton University, it did not matter that his school experience was uncomfortable and difficult. The court ruled that Argenyi had not met this threshold showing and therefore was not discriminated against by Creighton.
The Circuit court reversed the district court’s holding and ruled that Argenyi’s affidavit was admissible evidence. Argenyi’s affidavit stated he could not follow class lectures without CART and interpreters and could not communicate during clinics without an interpreter. The court ruled that an individual’s account is especially important in a discrimination case because they are most familiar with their disability and what type of aid will be effective.
The Eight Circuit disagreed with the district court’s standard for judging discrimination claims. The court ruled that in order for a plaintiff to prevail under both Section 504 and Title III against a university they must prove: (1) he has a disability and is academically qualified to attend the university; (2) the university is a place of public accommodation as defined by the ADA and receives federal funding; and (3) he was discriminated against by the university. In this case Creighton conceded the first two elements. Therefore, the only issue was whether the school discriminated against Argenyi.
Since discrimination claims under Title III and Section 504 are similar, the court consolidated Aregenyi’s two claims into one. The court ruled that both laws required Creighton, as a place of public accommodation that received federal funding, to provide Argenyi with the “necessary” and appropriate auxiliary aids and services to gain meaningful access to the benefit that they provide. Under the meaningful access standard, entities do not have to produce the same level of achievement between people with and without disabilities. However, they must give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to gain the same benefit.
The Eight Circuit disagreed with the district court’s interpretation of what constituted a necessary auxiliary aid or service. The district court had interpreted PGA v. Martin, a Supreme Court case, to mean that the school only had to provide enough accommodations to prevent Argenyi from being effectively excluded from Creighton University. The Court of Appeals instead interpreted PGA v. Martin to mean that Creighton, and other schools, must furnish reasonable auxiliary aids and services so that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to gain a like or equal benefit as their peers without disabilities. The court stated that Creighton must start by considering how its educational facilities are used by students without disabilities and then take reasonable steps to provide students with disabilities a like experience. The Eight Circuit was influenced by the Eleventh Circuit decision in Liese v. Indian River County Hospital to reach it decision. In Liese, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that giving “necessary” auxiliary aids meant providing an equal opportunity to benefit from the institution’s services.
The Eight Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Creighton University and sent the case back to the district court. The Eight Circuit ordered the district court to decide the case in light of its finding that Creighton must furnish reasonable auxiliary aids and services so that all individuals have an equal opportunity to gain a like or equal benefit.
Although this decision falls outside of the jurisdiction of the Southeast ADA Center, it is an important national case. The Court’s decision in Argenyi will help provide increased meaningful access to professional education through both the Rehabilitation Act and ADA. This is significant because people with disabilities are underrepresented in higher education generally. Further in the medical field, people who are deaf are less likely to hold high-skilled positions than those who are not.
The decision is also significant because the Court ruled that universities could not simply dictate the best approach in providing accommodation to individuals with disabilities. Instead, the Court found that schools have to listen to the individual’s determination about what works best for them, as they are the most familiar with their disability.
Other circuit courts have ruled in a comparable way as the Court did in Argenyi. For example, the Eight Circuit agreed with and cited an Eleventh Circuit case in coming to the conclusion that providing necessary auxiliary aids and services means providing the student an opportunity to receive a like or equal benefit from the institution. In addition, the Fourth Circuit came to a similar conclusion in Feldman v. Pro-Football Inc., where it ruled that stadiums must provide auxiliary access to more than just emergency information at NFL football games to ensure deaf visitors an equal benefit.