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DCA Sends Sign Language Query to Rights Commission

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 28, 2010 --

The Florida Human Relations Commission must determine whether a Hialeah hospital meets the legal definition of a public establishment so it can be determined whether it should have provided a sign language interpreter to a deaf patient, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The case, before the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, asks whether a hospital, in this case Palmetto General Hospital, is a “public accommodation” for purposes of the Florida Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in those settings determined to be public accommodations.

The plaintiff, Maura Mena, brought a discrimination complaint against the hospital and parent company Lifemark Hospitals alleging that while she was a patient at Palmetto, her request for a sign language interpreter was denied.

The Human Relations Commission, where Mena filed the complaint, dismissed it on various grounds, but primarily because it said hospitals aren’t covered as public accommodations under the Civil Rights Act.

The act lists several public accommodations, and hospitals aren’t on the list. But an establishment “principally engaged in selling food for for consumption on the premises” is. Mena argued that the hospital cafeteria qualified the entire hospital as a public establishment because of another section of the law which says that any establishment that has in it a public accommodation qualifies too if it “holds itself out as serving patrons of such covered establishment.”

Mena, and her lawyer, Matthew Dietz, argued that Palmetto Hospital should qualify, and should have been required to provide an interpreter. Dietz and other lawyers involved in the case didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

The commission has made a ruling on this issue before saying that hospitals aren’t primarily engaged in selling food, even if they have a cafeteria, and therefore don’t qualify.

But a three judge panel of the 1st DCA on Tuesday said whether the particular hospital is qualified depends, under the law, on whether it “holds itself out as serving patrons” of the cafeteria. And that question of fact must be answered before the court can rule, the panel said, sending the case back to the Human Relations Commission to determine the answer.

The question of whether hospitals must provide sign language interpreters has come up before in a separate case involving the same hospital, Palmetto General, but it wasn’t decided because it was settled out of court.

The National Association of the Deaf filed that complaint, Cuevas v. Palmetto General, in which the plaintiff, a woman who was in the hospital giving birth, was denied the ability to communicate because there was no sign language interpreter. The case was settled in 2008.


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