Senior living communities discriminated against deaf residents, lawsuit alleges

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The lawsuit, among other requests, asks the court to require the facilities to develop policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination against deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals.
The lawsuit, among other requests, asks the court to require the facilities to develop policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination against deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals.

Fourteen Arizona senior living communities are the targets of a federal lawsuit that alleges they discriminate against prospective residents who are deaf, based on undercover interactions with “testers” recruited by a fair housing organization.

Community representatives who responded to requests for comments told McKnight's Senior Living that their communities do not discriminate.

In its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on June 26, the nonprofit Southwest Fair Housing Council said that it used the mystery shoppers from August 2016 until April 2018.

“The testers, operating under aliases, made inquiries purportedly on behalf of fictional deaf relative(s). The testers were instructed to explain that their grandparent is deaf and uses [American Sign Language],” the lawsuit said. “Then, they were instructed to ask the defendants how the property would deal with the needs of the deaf grandparent to allow for effective communication, including the availability of auxiliary aids and services and the defendant's willingness to provide onsite ASL interpreters.”

The testers audio- or video-recorded their interactions and contacted the communities several times to see whether responses remained the same, the Tucson, AZ-based organization said. Some communication occurred via email.

The senior living communities, according to the complaint, are subject to the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Affordable Care Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Arizona Fair Housing Act and are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for deaf residents when necessary.

The shoppers, the lawsuit said, “were told that their relatives would not be provided interpreters; instead, they were told that the relatives could provide their own interpreters, or could communicate … through writing.” Some testers, the council said, alternatively were told that deaf residents could lip-read, rely on family members, or install devices such as blinking doorbells and “do not disturb” signs. One community representative reportedly told a tester that the community would not be able to meet a deaf resident's needs.

One community representative, according to the complaint, told a tester that the community was in the process of obtaining a device to communicate with a deaf resident, another said the community “would look into the issue of ASL interpreters,” and another said the community would research whether there were people in the building who could help with communication. One community told a tester that a part-time worker knew ASL but that when she wasn't there, the community would rely on written communication or, in emergencies, 911. Another community said that some staff members currently were being trained in ASL.

Ineffective communication, according to the Southwest Fair Housing Council, could lead to health issues for deaf residents.

The lawsuit, among other requests, asks the court to require the facilities to develop policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination against deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals “by failing to provide effective communication,” to provide onsite interpreters “as soon as practicable” when requested, to train employees on the rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and to create programs to ensure adherence to their policies. The lawsuit also seeks compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys' fees.

The communities named in the lawsuit:

  • Atria Chandler Villas, an Atria Senior Living independent and assisted living community in Chandler;
  • Atria Campana Del Rio, an Atria Senior Living independent living, assisted living and memory care community in Tucson;
  • Atria Park of Sierra Pointe, an Atria Senior Living independent and assisted living community in Scottsdale;
  • Brookdale Arrowhead Ranch, a Brookdale Senior Living assisted living and memory care community in Glendale;
  • Fountains at La Cholla, a Watermark Retirement Communities independent living, assisted living and memory care community in Tucson;
  • Freedom Plaza (The address in the lawsuit is for a continuing care retirement community in Peoria, but the community is misidentified in the lawsuit as Brookdale Freedom Plaza; Freedom Plaza at Sun City Center is a Brookdale CCRC in Florida).
  • Immanuel Campus of Care, a CopperSands CCRC in Peoria;
  • La Posada at Park Centre, a CCRC in Green Valley;
  • MorningStar at Arrowhead, a MorningStar Senior Living assisted living and memory care community in Glendale;
  • Sherwood Village, a Saguaro Senior Living assisted living and memory care community in Tucson;
  • Silver Springs, a Senior Resource Group independent and assisted living community in Green Valley;
  • Solterra Senior Living at Chandler, an assisted living and memory care community in Chandler;
  • Sunrise at River Road, a Sunrise Senior Living assisted living and memory care community in Tucson; and
  • Village at Ocotillo, an SRG independent and assisted living community in Chandler.

Kirk Brooks, regional vice president – Arizona for Atria Senior Living, told McKnight's Senior Living: “As an ongoing legal matter, we cannot comment in detail except to say that we do not discriminate based on hearing impairment or any other grounds. We look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible and remain focused on providing our residents and families with the highest quality of service and care.”

Jill Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Fountains at La Cholla, said that the community had hired sign language interpreters on several occasions and had installed aids for hard-of-hearing residents. “We understand our obligations and are proud to provide a welcoming, supportive setting for all,” she said. “We are committed to providing a respectful, inclusive, accommodating community.”

Cindy Fitzgerald, executive director at Sherwood Village, said she could not comment on the case because it is in active litigation. “However, as to the process generally followed by the facility, Sherwood Village is committed to providing individuals with meaningful access to healthcare and to the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability,” she said. “The staff and administration at Sherwood Village work collectively and collaboratively with residents, families and responsible parties to ensure that care is delivered and communication is effected in a way that meets the resident's needs and complies with applicable laws and regulations. We are proud of the work we do here and are grateful for the opportunity to serve each resident in our community.”

Senior Resource Group Vice President of Health and Development Josh Allen, RN, C-AL, told McKnight's Senior Living: “The well-being of our residents — and prospective residents — is a priority for us. We work hard to provide an environment at our communities that is respectful and supportive to all.”

Representatives for Immanuel, Solterra and Sunrise did not respond to requests for comments by the publication deadline. The spokesman for LaPosada was out of the office and unable to provide a comment by the publication deadline. Representatives for Brookdale and MorningStar said they had no comment.

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