Can you be denied a job because you are HIV positive? Many LGBTQ+ employees and others who live with this diagnosis worry any time an employer requires a medical check. But a recent settlement shows that HIV discrimination is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Find out what you can do if you believe you lost a job because of your health circumstances.
In 2012, a former police officer, Liam Pierce, was denied a job with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana after his pre-employment medical evaluation revealed he was HIV positive. Pierce had experience as a police officer, volunteer firefighter, and paramedic, and seemed well qualified for the position. The ex-cop had lost a previous job over a claim of misconduct. However, he and his employment discrimination attorneys said that misconduct had been addressed during his interviews. “They said it wasn’t a problem,” Pierce’s attorney said. Everything was “perfectly on track” for Pierce to become a deputy sheriff with the department.
But then Pierce underwent a pre-employment medical exam. He told the medical team that he was HIV positive. While he says the doctors told him having HIV didn’t disqualify him from the job, it didn’t take long for the sheriff’s office to deny him the job after the results of the exam were sent in. Suddenly, Pierce’s past misconduct became a problem -- a pretense for the true basis for the denial: workplace discrimination against HIV positive employees.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents employers from treating employers or applicants differently because of their medical disabilities. Unfavorable employment decisions could include anything from shift assignments to rejecting an otherwise qualified applicant. The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees or job applicants who have a medical diagnosis or disability, unless the needed accommodation would cause significant difficulty, expense or “undue hardship” to the employer.
But plenty of medical conditions have no effect on an applicant’s ability to do the job at all. Employees and applicants may be able to manage their symptoms through medication or other treatments, or the expressions of the condition may not overlap with the needs of the job. In these cases, it is illegal for employers to treat an employee less favorably because he or she:
Pierce’s lawsuit had to do with this form of asymptomatic disability discrimination in the workplace. After he was passed over for the job in 2012, his attorney helped him file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 2018, the EEOC said that Pierce had probable cause to bring a lawsuit based on what happened to him. Two years later, on April 24, 2020, he announced that the case had settled. Pierce is set to receive $90,000 in damages for his HIV job discrimination claim.
Pierce was represented by the LGBTQ+ advocacy firm Lambda Legal. Earlier this year, the firm also won an argument in a similar HIV discrimination case against the U.S. Air Force. There, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction preventing the Air Force from discharging soldiers simply because they tested HIV positive. They also have 2 other lawsuits pending against other branches of the U.S. military.
HIV discrimination is especially challenging because many people are affected by decades-old stigma and bias against the disease. HIV is difficult to transmit and when treated can even be reduced to undetectable levels. Even in jobs where there are risks of contact with bodily fluids, the Centers for Disease Control says the risk of spreading HIV is “near zero.”
Still, many employers hold entrenched beliefs that people with HIV are somehow “dirty” or “bad.” Much of this stems from false information about the disease from the 1980s and 1990s. Those who are HIV-positive must also deal with homophobia and sexual orientation discrimination because HIV and AIDS were originally thought to primarily affect gay men.
Lawsuits that fight against discrimination in the workplace based on HIV status are important to help employees understand that the ADA protects them too. All too often, employees suffer the stigma related to this disease in silence, not realizing they have the right to demand better. At Eisenberg & Baum, our experienced employment discrimination attorneys know how to use the ADA and other state and federal anti-discrimination laws to protect HIV-positive and LGBTQ+ workers. If you have been turned down for a position because of your condition, we will help you explore your options, and protect your rights. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.