In a recent decision, the 11th Circuit concluded that an MRI facility's refusal to allow a legally blind woman, who requires the assistance of a service dog, to bring her 80-pound Labrador retriever guide dog into an inner waiting area of an MRI facility to wait with her child constituted discrimination. The MRI facility offered various explanations for its policy prohibiting animals to go beyond its waiting room, including concerns relating to (1) the animal's safety, (2) metal in the animal's harness, (3) hygiene, and (4) space restrictions in the holding room. Despite the plausible explanations, the court concluded that the MRI center's discriminatory treatment was intentional and "the result of a years-long policy created by [the MRI's] owner, communicated through [the organization's] ranks, and enforced on multiple occasions, sometimes vehemently."
As a result of the treatment, the patient's mother sued the MRI facility seeking non-economic emotional distress damages under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While non-economic compensatory damages have not previously been awarded under the Rehabilitation Act in a reported decision, the 11th Circuit held that non-economic compensatory damages were recoverable. Under the Rehabilitation Act, courts may use any available remedy designed to correct the wrong done, other than punitive damages. The court held that remuneration for emotional damages was compensatory in nature and designed to remedy the harm of discrimination. The court believed imposition of non-economic damages was appropriate because emotional distress is a foreseeable consequence of discrimination and the MRI facility had fair notice of the potential liability.
This decision may significantly expand the potential liability of healthcare providers for intentional violations of the Rehabilitation Act. Providers should review their service animal and other disability accommodation policies, procedures and practices. Sheely v. MRI Radiology Network, P.A., 2007 WL 3087215 (11th Cir. Oct. 24, 2007) (No. 06-13791).