Judge limits Creighton's arguments in lawsuit

Judge limits arguments Creighton University can make to defend upcoming discrimination lawsuit

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- A judge has limited the arguments Creighton University can make later this month in defending itself from a lawsuit by a man who says its medical school discriminated against him because he is deaf.

The jury trial, set to start Aug. 20 in Omaha's federal court, comes after a U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in March that said a jury should be allowed to decide whether Creighton discriminated against medical school student Michael Argenyi. The ruling reversed a lower court's dismissal of Argenyi's lawsuit.

Argenyi was accepted to Creighton's medical school in 2008 after disclosing that he was hearing-impaired and requesting accommodations for his disability to allow him to follow lectures and communicate with patients. But after having his requests for an interpreter denied, Argenyi took a leave of absence from the school and sued.

On Friday, a judge barred Creighton from arguing that Argenyi's requested accommodations would fundamentally alter the medical school curriculum or pose a threat to the health and safety of patients.

Under federal law intended to prevent discrimination against those with disabilities, that leaves Creighton with the defense that accommodating Argenyi would have caused an undue burden to Creighton, either through significant difficulty or expense, said Mary Vargas, a Maryland attorney for Argenyi.

"But they testified in deposition that cost was not the reason that they denied the accommodations," Vargas said.

An attorney for Creighton did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Argenyi was an infant when he began using hearing aids for his disability, court records say, but his parents primarily communicated with him through spoken language. Argenyi does not know sign language and instead relies on "cued speech," using hand signals to distinguish sounds that appear the same on a speaker's lips.

While an undergraduate student at Seattle University in Washington state, Argenyi used a system that transcribes spoken words into text on a computer screen. With the help of that system and a cued speech interpreter — both provided by Seattle University — Argenyi graduated in 2008 with a 3.87 GPA.

Argenyi's lawsuit says Creighton did provide some assistance, such as a system in which professors wore a microphone that emitted frequencies to be picked up by Argenyi's cochlear implants. But Argenyi said the system was not adequate to help him, and one doctor determined it actually reduced Argenyi's ability to understand his professors.

The university repeatedly refused Argenyi's main requests for the transcription system and interpreters, leading Argenyi to take out more than $110,000 in loans to pay for the assistance himself in his first two years of medical school.

The lawsuit says Argenyi left his third year of medical school when the university refused to allow him to have an interpreter to interact with clinical patients — even if he paid for the interpreter himself.

The U.S. Justice Department recently weighed in on the case, submitting an "interested party" brief favoring Argenyi after Creighton sought to keep Argenyi from getting a trial before a jury.

"(A) reasonable juror could handily find that Creighton's decision to continue to deny Mr. Argenyi ... auxiliary aids or services based on a faculty opinion that he would be 'better prepared' as a physician if he trained without an interpreter constitutes and reflects deliberate indifference under (federal law)," the Justice Department brief said.

Asked whether the recent developments have her feeling good about Argenyi's chances in court, Vargas said: "He's been trying to be a doctor for four years, so what I would feel good about is if he had that opportunity."

She said there are hundreds of successful deaf doctors in the U.S. "I think he should be given that chance," the attorney said.

Argenyi is currently working toward a master's degree at Boston University's School of Public Health, said another one of his attorneys, Dianne DeLair with Disability Rights Nebraska.

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