The Sixth Circuit ruled that a hearing-impaired patient’s claim that a hospital failed to provide an interpreter—resulting in inadequate care—falls under the Affordable Care Act and is therefore subject to the federal four-year statute of limitations. The court rejected the hospital’s argument that the claim arose under an earlier federal law that courts have interpreted to “borrow” shorter state personal injury statutes of limitation. (Tomei v. Parkwest Med. Ctr., 2022 WL 153178 (6th Cir. Jan. 18, 2022).)
Scott Tomei, who communicates primarily in American Sign Language (ASL), sought care for injuries to his right leg and foot at Parkwest Medical Center Knoxville, Tenn., in October 2017. He alleges he requested a live ASL interpreter, but hospital staff refused, instead showing him an X-ray of his knee and sending him home with antibiotics and ibuprofen. Tomei sought treatment for the same injuries two days later at an emergency room, where doctors determined he had blood clots in his leg and sent him by ambulance back to Parkwest for treatment. He again requested that Parkwest provide an ASL interpreter but was provided with a video remote interpreting device meant to connect him with an off-site interpreter instead. Tomei claims that the device connection was so glitchy that he could not communicate effectively.
A Parkwest doctor then performed surgery on Tomei to address the blood clots. Tomei continued to suffer from intense pain after the surgery but was refused an interpreter and sent home after a few nights, sedated and with his foot allegedly appearing blue. After physical therapists visited Tomei and determined his foot was not in good enough shape for therapy, they called Tomei’s doctor at Parkwest. The Parkwest doctor advised that Tomei seek care from his family doctor, who sent him to a different hospital—University of Tennessee Medical Center—where he was immediately provided with in-person ASL interpreters. He underwent a second surgery, but ultimately required amputation of nearly one-third of his leg. Staff at the University of Tennessee Medical Center told Tomei through an interpreter that the amputation could have been avoided had he come to them earlier.
Tomei filed suit in Tennessee federal district court in January 2019, about 15 months after Parkwest initially denied him an ASL interpreter. He alleged Parkwest violated §1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability in certain health programs and activities. Parkwest moved to dismiss on the basis that Tomei’s claim was time-barred. The defendant argued that Tomei’s claim, while brought under the ACA, was subject to Tennessee’s one-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims, not the four-year statute of limitations for civil actions “arising under” a federal statute enacted after Dec. 1, 1990, per 28 U.S.C. §1658(a).
Enacted in 2010, §1557 of the ACA cites to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—incorporating “legal standards that define discrimination” from these earlier anti-discrimination statutes. And for disability discrimination claims under §504, which contains no express statute of limitations, the Sixth Circuit has typically borrowed the relevant state statute of limitations—such as Tennessee’s one-year personal injury statute of limitations. However, Tomei’s claim is not under §504, but under the later-enacted ACA §1557. As such, he argues, the court need not borrow the state statute of limitations but can simply apply the federal “uniform” one for statutes enacted after 1990.
The district court agreed with Tomei, applying the Sixth Circuit’s two-part test for determining the applicable statute of limitations: First, the court must look to whether the cause of action arises under an “Act of Congress” enacted after Dec. 1, 1990, and if not, the court must borrow “the state’s most analogous limitations period.” Tomei has brought a private right of action made available by §1557 and its implementing regulations, the court said, adding that “claims under different statutes should be distinguished from one another regardless of whether they are ‘analyzed under the same frameworks.’” The court also noted that the “central purpose” of the federal four-year statute of limitations is “‘to minimize the occasions’ where courts are borrowing state statutes to limit claims under federal law.” The district court denied Parkwest’s motion to dismiss, and Parkwest appealed.
The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s analysis, finding that Tomei’s claim “arises under” the ACA §1557 and not §504. The appellate court said that although “a litigant like Tomei may have been able to sue under the Rehabilitation Act before Congress enacted the ACA’s nondiscrimination provision,” courts must “rely on the claim the plaintiff is bringing—not hypothetical claims he could have chosen instead.” And treating Tomei’s claim as arising under the ACA “makes practical sense,” the Sixth Circuit added, whereas Parkwest’s argument would require prospective plaintiffs to not simply sue under the federal law where they find a cause of action, but “to research whether any other law could provide a cause of action for the same injury.” The appellate court affirmed, allowing Tomei’s suit to proceed.
New York City attorney Andrew Rozynski, who represents Tomei, said “the Sixth Circuit’s well-reasoned and thoughtful opinion will benefit the deaf community in asserting their rights all over the United States.” He added that he “looks forward to obtaining justice for Mr. Tomei.”