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Expensive Sign Language Interpreter Was a Reasonable Accommodation

When Lauren Searls graduated from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, she was offered a position within Johns Hopkins Hospital (“JHH”). As a deaf person, Ms. Searls could read lips but she understood much more with the aid of a sign language interpreter. When she accepted JHH’s offer, Ms. Searls requested a sign language interpreter as an accommodation. JHH ended up rescinding the offer because the interpreter would require a salary of $120,000. Ms. Searls was able to find a position at another hospital, which did provide her with a full-time interpreter. At no time did JHH ask her details about how she would work with an interpreter nor did they discuss an alternative accommodation.

Ms. Searls sued the hospital for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, asserting that she was a qualified individual who, with accommodation could perform the essential functions of a nursing position. A federal district court in Maryland found that Ms. Searls was able to perform a significant portion of the essential functions of communicating with patients, families, other hospital personnel and responding to alarms with the use of an interpreter. As for JHH’s argument that the $120,000 would have caused an undue hardship, the court looked at its operating budget. The court asserted that the employer’s own budget for reasonable accommodation is an irrelevant factor in assessing undue hardship. JHH’s operational budget of $1.7 billion meant that Ms. Searls’ accommodation of $120,000 was only 0.007% of that budget.  JHH’s failure to engage in an individualized assessment of Ms. Searls’ needs overcame its unsubstantiated and late argument that an interpreter with no nursing training posed a direct threat to patient care.