(CN) - A medical school may be liable to a deaf student who borrowed $114,000 - on top of his tuition - to pay for hearing-assistance technology and interpreters, the 8th Circuit ruled.
Michael Argenyi was born deaf, but received a cochlear implant before going to college in 2004. With the help of interpreters and hearing-assistance software known as Communication Access Real-time Transcription (CART), Argenyi graduated from Seattle University with a 3.87 grade-point average.
He received a second cochlear implant in June 2009 after Creighton University accepted him into its medical school in Omaha, Neb. Even with the implants, however, Argenyi said his hearing resembles "a poorly tuned, crackling radio station."
Argenyi asked Creighton to provide him with CART for lectures and oral interpreters for labs and small groups. The school instead offered him only front-row seating and the use of an amplified FM device, which an ear specialist and expert witness for Argenyi later testified gave Argenyi just 38 percent speech perception.
Argenyi filed suit in September under the Americans with Disabilities Act as he began his medical studies. To keep up, Argenyi borrowed $53,000 to pay for CART and interpreters himself, on top of tuition and living expenses, which average $71,000 for the first year of medical school.
His second year, Argenyi borrowed $61,000 to pay for hearing assistance, but the school refused to let interpreters accompany him in clinical courses, even though he could not understand what his patients said to him.
In a renewed request for an interpreter, Argenyi said: "I met with patients ... and found that I could not understand all of what patients and others at the clinic said. With some patients I understood very little. ... I know you said I only have to show up to pass, but I want to learn how to be a doctor, and I think it is important to understand what the patients are saying to me."
Argenyi suspended his studies after his second year pending the outcome of his lawsuit. A federal judge soon granted Creighton summary judgment, however, finding that Argenyi had not shown his requests for accommodation were necessary. The court also rejected Argenyi's affidavit as "unsupported self-serving allegations."
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit reversed Tuesday, finding that there is enough support of Argenyi's allegations to warrant further proceedings.
Doctors sent Creighton five letters confirming Argenyi's need for additional auxiliary aids and services, according to the ruling.
"Argenyi's affidavit, corroborated by evidence from Dr. Backous and Dr. Thedinger and his own need to obtain private loans for CART and interpreters, provides strong evidence that Creighton's accommodations were inadequate and that the university was not entitled to summary judgment," Judge Diana Murphy wrote for the panel. "We conclude that the District Court erred by disregarding Argenyi's affidavit, the 'independent documentary evidence' offered in its support, and all aspects of the record before it."
The District Court used a faulty analogy to find that the Creighton-supplied auxiliary aids and services made Argenyi's medical school experience "uncomfortable or difficult," but not "beyond [his] capacity."
It had found that Creighton had not "effectively excluded" Argenyi, so "his requested additional aids and services were not 'necessary' under the ADA."
In contrast, the appeals court said Argenyi had produced "a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Creighton denied Argenyi an equal opportunity to gain the same benefit from medical school as his nondisabled peers by refusing to provide his requested accommodations."