Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights announced today that a New Jersey nursing home must pay a deaf woman $2,500 to resolve allegations it repeatedly hung up on her when she tried to contact the facility by telephone using a relay service.
Under terms of a settlement obtained on behalf of complainant Nicole Perkins by the Division on Civil Rights, Atrium Post Acute Care of Wayne, Passaic County, is also subject to a $10,000 suspended state penalty. The penalty can be reinstated if Atrium defaults on any provision of the settlement or, within two years, is found to have committed a new violation.
In addition, the nursing home must arrange training for all employees and company officers on the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The training must include education on telecommunications relay services and other assistive communication devices and technology used by persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“This case should serve as a message to healthcare facilities and other businesses around the state that we are serious about promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities,” said Attorney General Grewal. “This was a troubling case because there simply is no excuse for a nursing home – of all places – to repeatedly refuse to accept a telephone call from an operator calling on behalf of a deaf person. We are committed to enforcing the LAD, our nation’s oldest and most comprehensive civil rights law, and we are committed to holding accountable those who violate it.”
“Recent technological advances have been life changing for deaf people and have had a huge impact on their ability to communicate with others,” said Division on Civil Rights Director Rachel Wainer Apter, “but the technology only works if places of public accommodation, including hospitals and nursing homes, educate staff about their responsibilities. Hopefully this case will help us get the word out.”
Complainant Perkins was working as a caseworker/advocate at St. Joseph’s Health Care System in Paterson on May 25, 2016 when she attempted to contact officials at Atrium Post Acute Care to obtain the medical records of a client, who is also deaf.
In placing her call, Perkins enlisted the aid of a video relay service known as Purple Communications.
A deaf caller using Purple communicates with Purple’s operator on duty – either via text message or FaceTime (using American Sign Language or “ASL.”) The Purple operator then places the telephone call to the intended recipient, announces that it is a relay call made on behalf of a caller who is deaf or hard of hearing, communicates verbally with the person receiving the call, and then relays the conversation back to the deaf caller through text message or ASL.
Officials say Perkins told Division investigators that, on her first try, the Purple operator reported that a male voice had answered the phone and refused to accept the call, uttering the words “I’m not responsible” before hanging up. At Perkins’ request, the Purple operator called back several more times. In each case, she told the Division, the same male voice refused to accept the call and, when asked, refused to disclose his name.
The Division subsequently obtained telephone records from Purple Communications, and those records confirmed that Purple’s relay operator called Atrium Post Acute Care five times within a nine-minute span on the afternoon in question.
Under terms of the settlement announced today, Atrium denies any wrongdoing.
In interviews with Division investigators, Atrium employees – including two female receptionists tasked with answering the telephones on a regular basis – expressed a lack of familiarity with relay-service-assisted calls. One male employee who said he covers the telephones during receptionist breaks said he may have hung up on what he thought was an automated or “robo” call.
A Finding of Probable Cause issued by the Division earlier this year said the Division was “concerned” about such a lack of awareness.
“A healthcare provider that routinely receives telephone inquiries from the public and professionals is expected to accommodate deaf or hard of hearing callers by adjusting its telephone protocols to ensure that communications received by a relay service are not mistakenly identified as automated calls,” the FPC asserted.
The FPC held that Atrium’s failure to accept a relay call from Perkins -- who at the time was acting in her capacity as a patient advocate at St. Joseph’s Heath Care System – “prevented Complainant from performing her job” and frustrated her ability “to obtain requested medical information” on behalf of a deaf client.