Lawsuit highlights health care difficulties for the deaf

The U.S. Department of Justice is suing a Florida doctor and his medical practice for discrimination after allegedly immediately dropping as patients a deaf couple after learning they planned to sue a local hospital for failing to provide a sign language interpreter in the emergency room.

In a case that highlights the struggles the hearing impaired sometimes face in finding adequate health care, the suit against Dr. Hal Brown and Primary Care of the Treasure Coast of Vero Beach, Fla., alleges that the doctor and the medical practice violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Susan and James Liese of Jupiter, Fla., who are both deaf, had been Brown's patients for years. According to the suit, after learning that the couple previously had threatened an ADA lawsuit against an affiliated hospital, Brown immediately terminated the Lieses as patients. That left the couple without a primary care doctor.

The Justice Department lawsuit is one of three involving the Lieses, said Miami attorney Matthew Dietz, who represented the couple in other suits. Dietz filed a notice letter on their behalf a few years ago against Indian River Medical Center in Vero Beach, Fla., for failing to provide a sign-language interpreter during Susan Liese's 2007 emergency room visit.

"Lip reading and passing notes aren't acceptable forms of communication for medical needs," Dietz said.

After the notice letter was sent, Brown dropped the Lieses as patients in 2009, Dietz said. When Brown was interviewed for a deposition in 2010 about the IRMC lawsuit, he said the notice prompted him not to keep the couple as patients.

"I had never had her express any difficulties in communicating with me," Brown said in the deposition. "And then I became aware of this lawsuit, and I felt that it was dishonest of her to represent herself as being uninformed, inadequately informed, and in need of any of these interpretive assistants that she claimed that she needed."

A federal judge in May ruled in favor of IRMC in the Lieses' lawsuit. But as that lawsuit was progressing, Dietz notified the Department of Justice about Brown's deposition.

"It would be nice to have a case that deaf people could point to and say 'You can't do this to me,' " Dietz said. "Retaliation is a big issue for the deaf community. They're afraid to complain, especially if they're in a rural area where if they are dropped by a doctor, they won't be able to get another one locally."

The hospital is located next door to and affiliated with PCTC. Michael Luton, CEO of Primary Care, would not comment about the specifics of the lawsuit, but said he was confident Brown would be exonerated.

In a statement, Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said that "a person cannot be terminated as a patient because he or she asserts the right to effective communication at a hospital."

The suit was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Ft. Pierce.

The Lieses also are among 10 complainants in a lawsuit filed by Dietz two weeks ago against Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach. The suit states the hospital failed to provide interpreters for the plaintiffs when they were patients there. James Liese checked into Bethesda for outpatient surgery in June and November 2011.

(Contact Lamaur Stancil of Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers, The Stuart News, Fort Pierce Tribune and Vero Beach Press Journal at Lamaur.Stancil@scripps.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com)

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