Third Minnesota Family Files Disability Discrimination Suit Against Fairview Health Services

Couple alleges Fairview’s Range Hospital in Hibbing, MN repeatedly failed to meet its obligation to ensure deaf father could communicate effectively with physicians caring for his wife and newborn daughter.

HIBBING, MINNESOTA — A Hibbing, MN couple joined a disability discrimination suit initially filed by the State of Minnesota, through Commissioner Kevin Lindsay of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, against Fairview Health Services and its hospital located in Hibbing, Minnesota, Range Regional Health Services (d/b/a Range Regional Medical Center). Their complaint alleges Fairview left a deaf father of a newborn without any means of communicating with the doctors and healthcare providers who were caring for his wife and newborn daughter over a three-day period. Their newborn was born with medical complications and underwent several tests and examinations, to which the deaf father was not able to access communications. For instance, during the family’s admission at Fairview, one of the tests subjected the couple’s days-old newborn daughter to radiation. The deaf father, however, did not understand the purpose of the test, or that his newborn would be exposed to radiation. During testing for an additional complication, the child was diagnosed with a significant medical issue, and the deaf father could not learn information from the providers or ask questions about the diagnosis.

This lawsuit is one of three active deaf discrimination cases against Fairview Health Services, two of which are presently filed in the United States District of Minnesota. In 2004, Fairview entered into a public consent decree with the United States Department of Justice and the State of Minnesota, in which it promised to provide effective communication for deaf patients and deaf companions, and to not rely on family members to interpret.

The father—who is one of the Plaintiffs in this case—is completely deaf and communicates primarily in American Sign Language (“ASL”), which is a distinct language from English with its own syntax, structure, and culture. He and his wife, also a Plaintiff, allege that Fairview failed to provide an ASL interpreter on multiple occasions when he accompanied her to prenatal exams and while he was present with his days-old daughter during her treatment for serious complications. Despite repeated requests for such an accommodation and a note in the wife’s medical file documenting that her husband required an interpreter, Fairview repeatedly failed to provide one, and instead relied on the recovering wife to facilitate communication.

Based on their treatment, emotional distress, and with knowledge of their legal rights, the couple filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2013. The State of Minnesota found probable cause that discrimination occurred and subsequently filed suit against Fairview and its subsidiary in 2016 after conciliation with Fairview was unsuccessful.

In the Complaint, the State of Minnesota and the couple allege that Fairview failed to offer and provide the deaf father with effective communication, and therefore, provided the couple with subpar medical care by forcing them to focus not only on their family’s medical concerns, but also with gaps in communication between the deaf father and Fairview’s healthcare providers. In response to the State of Minnesota investigative findings, the couple joined the case separately so that they may also pursue claims under federal law, which are outside the State of Minnesota’s authority to pursue on their behalf.

Heather Gilbert, of Gilbert Law PLLC, counsel for the couple, states, “Discovering your newborn has medical complications is hard enough emotionally, even when you can hear and understand the doctors. It’s quite surprising to me that Fairview didn’t get an interpreter for those interactions, and even more shocking to learn they relied on the recovering mother to interpret, who had just given birth. Practically speaking, her hands were tied up nursing and caring for their newborn. She wasn’t there to perform an interpreting service so that Fairview could communicate with their newborn’s father and her husband.”

Under the authority of Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights, Kevin Lindsey, the State of Minnesota filed the suit, captioned Minnesota Department of Human Rights v. Range Regional Health Services et al., in St. Louis County Court, the county where the hospital is located.

Fairview is a large chain of hospitals and clinics that employs over 20,000 staff members and 3,000 physicians. It is currently named as a defendant in at least two other disability discrimination suits brought by a deaf patient and/or deaf family members.

Gilbert Law PLLC is a civil rights law firm committed to representing protected classes so they have full and equal access to all parts of society. Heather Gilbert may be reached at 651-340-9642.

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