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Nurse Who Wears Hearing Aids Alleges Job Discrimination

Was hospital's treatment of hearing-impaired RN who complained of loud OR music discrimination or discipline?

Published: July 24, 2014

An OR nurse's claims that he was discriminated against due to his impaired hearing are worth examining at trial, says a Mississippi federal court.

Johnny Wheat, Jr., RN, is suing Meridian, Miss.-based Rush Health Systems, alleging that hospital management removed him from his position due to his genetic hearing loss and failed to accommodate him with comparable job duties, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Countering that Mr. Wheat had been removed for performance issues, Rush asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit through summary judgment. In a July 15 ruling, however, the court denied the request, opening the door to the possibility of a federal trial.

Mr. Wheat, who wears bilateral hearing aids, worked at Rush Foundation Hospital from February 2008 until his resignation in August 2012. According to the court's ruling, he received consistently high marks for his performance as a charge nurse and preceptor, then later as a PACU nurse. After 14 months circulating in the orthopedic OR, however, he was removed from the department and placed on administrative leave with pay in April 2012.

In preliminary testimony, Mr. Wheat and hospital managers have offered conflicting explanations for the removal. The hospital has maintained that it was the result of repeated performance concerns that put patient safety at risk, such as improper patient positioning during transport. Further, the hospital has downplayed Mr. Wheat's disability, noting that he only "had trouble hearing some things if the radio was too loud in the operating room."

Mr. Wheat points out, however, that the director of surgical services told him that his hearing, not his performance, was at issue. The orthopedic surgeons had become frustrated with "having to tell you something twice," she said. The situation was often exacerbated by the volume of music in the OR, and Mr. Wheat had asked the surgeons to lower it, to no avail.

After his removal, Mr. Wheat interviewed for several similar opportunities at Rush, but was offered none. The position he eventually accepted within the health system paid significantly less and included night and weekend shifts. He filed his lawsuit in November 2012.

Mr. Wheat's attorney, Jim Waide, declined to comment on the pending litigation, but noted that the trial was scheduled to open on August 11. Attorneys for Rush Health Services did not reply to a request for comment.

David Bernard

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