Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals
703 F.3d 441, January 15, 2013
United States District Court of Nebraska
2013 WL4434424, August 14, 2013
2013 WL5409398, September 4, 2013
2014 WL1838980, May 8, 2014
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 Eighth 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 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 use of Communication Access Real-time 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. Creighton 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.
Argenyi began classes and tried the FM system for two weeks. He then wrote to the school and informed them that the FM system was inadequate and that he would obtain CART for himself, at a cost of $53,000 for the first year. Additionally, Argenyi brought this lawsuit. 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 accommodations and was denied. He again purchased CART for his second year for $61,000. 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 ruling 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. Additionally, 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, poorly accommodated and unnecessarily difficult. The court ruled that Argenyi had not shown he was excluded and was not discriminated against by Creighton.
The Eighth Circuit 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 he is most familiar with his disability and what type of aid will be effective.
The Eighth 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. Creighton conceded the first two elements. The only issue was whether the school discriminated against Argenyi.
Since discrimination claims under Title III and Section 504 are similar, the court consolidated Argenyi’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 Eighth Circuit also disagreed with the district court’s interpretation of what constituted a necessary auxiliary aid or service. The district court interpreted PGA v. Martin, a U.S. 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 Eighth Circuit 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 Eighth 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 Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Creighton University and sent the case back to the district court. The Eighth Circuit ordered the district court to decide the case in light of the 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.
Before the District Court of Nebraska could apply the Eighth Circuit’s standard to Argenyi’s claims, the court had to first resolve the issue of compensatory damages and Argenyi’s request for a jury trial.
The Eighth Circuit in Meagley v. City of Little Rock held that in order to recover compensatory damages under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a plaintiff must prove deliberate intent, which can be inferred from the deliberate indifference by the defendant to the “strong likelihood that pursuit of its questioned polices will likely result in a violation of federally protected rights.” Other circuits, including the Eleventh in Liese v. Indian River County Hospital, have come to the same conclusion. Creighton argued that Argenyi could not prove deliberate indifference given an improper reliance on case law and inadmissible hearsay evidence. As a result, the school argued, he should not be entitled to compensatory damages or a jury trial.
This motion was denied, however, and Argenyi’s claims requesting an injunction, reimbursement for costs of auxiliary aids and services, and compensatory relief went before a jury. Unfortunately, the jury held that Argenyi did not meet his burden regarding intentional discrimination, and therefore did not award compensatory damages for the $133,595 in loans and interest that he had to borrow to pay for CART and interpreting services during his first two years of medical school. However, under the Eighth Circuit’s standard of providing aids and services so that every individual has an equal opportunity to gain a similar benefit, the jury did find that Creighton discriminated against Argenyi in violation of the ADA and Section 504. The jury determined that Creighton discriminated against Argenyi by failing to provide him with needed auxiliary aids and services during his first two years of school, which contrary to Creighton’s argument, would not have been an undue burden
After the jury verdict, Argenyi filed a motion for declaratory, equitable, and injunctive relief with the district court. His motion for declaratory relief requested that Creighton provide all of his requested auxiliary aids and services for his final two years of school and equitable restitution for the accommodation expenses his first two years. The district court ruled that beginning in the fall of 2014, Argenyi’s third year of medical school, auxiliary aids and services including CART in didactic settings and interpreters in small groups and clinical settings will have to be provided by Creighton. The district court, however, agreed with the jury’s conclusion concerning damages.
Even though Argenyi did not win on the intentional discrimination claim, he was considered the prevailing party on the merits of the case, and therefore was awarded attorney’s fees and costs.
Although this decision falls outside the Southeast ADA Center’s eight state region, 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 also is 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. Although Argenyi did not receive reimbursement for his expenditures during his first two years of school, he will receive the accommodations that he needs beginning in Fall 2014. This deference given to a student is rare in the world of higher education and accommodations. It likely will benefit other students pursuing advanced degrees who are not receiving appropriate accommodations.
By holding as it did in Argenyi, the Eighth Circuit followed the reasoning and holdings of the Eleventh and Fourth Circuits and concluded that providing necessary auxiliary aids and services means providing the student an opportunity to receive a like or equal benefit from the institution.