Cirque du Soleil To Pay $600,000 To End HIV Discrimination Complaint by Former Performer, In Nations Largest HIV Settlement of Its Kind
(Los Angeles, April 22, 2004) - Lambda Legal announced today that Cirque du Soleil will pay a record $600,000 to end an HIV discrimination complaint filed by a performer who was fired last year because he has HIV. The settlement ends a nationwide campaign and a federal disability complaint filed by Lambda Legal on behalf of its client, Matthew Cusick.
“This is a huge victory for working people with HIV because it tells employers that there’s a steep price to pay for HIV discrimination,” said Hayley Gorenberg, Director of Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project and the lead attorney on the case. “This kind of discrimination still happens all across the country, and today’s record-setting settlement will have ripple effects nationwide.”
According to Lambda Legal, today’s agreement is the largest public settlement ever for an HIV-discrimination complaint settled with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Lambda Legal has battled HIV discrimination since the first days of the epidemic and litigated the nation’s first HIV discrimination case in 1983.
“When I was fired by Cirque du Soleil, it was the worst day of my life. Today is nearly the exact opposite because I stood up for what I knew was right and changed one of the world’s most popular entertainment companies,” said Cusick, who described the Cirque position as a “dream job” for any gymnast. “This kind of discrimination tears people’s dreams and careers apart. While other people in all sorts of professions will still face HIV discrimination, after today they will have a powerful tool with the settlement we reached.”
Under the settlement agreement, Cirque du Soleil will host annual anti-discrimination trainings for all of its employees worldwide and will adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination based on HIV and other disabilities. For two years Cirque will have its records open to the EEOC, ensuring that the company is in compliance with today’s agreement.
Lambda Legal filed the federal discrimination complaint with the EEOC in July 2003 against Cirque du Soleil on behalf of Cusick, who was fired because he has HIV. Before filing the complaint, Lambda Legal attempted to persuade Cirque to change its position and policy voluntarily. Although the company’s own doctors had cleared him to safely perform for the Las Vegas-based show “Mystere,” Cirque du Soleil management told Cusick that because he has HIV he is a “known safety hazard” and the company would not continue to employ him. The EEOC investigated Cirque du Soleil for several months before ultimately finding that there was “reasonable cause to believe that [Cirque du Soleil] discriminated against [Cusick] when it discharged him because of his disability, record of disability, and being regarded as disabled.” The EEOC then directed a mediation, which led to today’s agreement.
Lambda Legal and community leaders launched a nationwide campaign against Cirque du Soleil late last year, which intensified over several months with protests outside Cirque shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County, California. Several thousand people signed petitions and sent letters to Cirque du Soleil to complain about Cusick’s firing. Cirque du Soleil also came under fire from local governments with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission launching its own discrimination investigation, the Los Angeles City Attorney writing a strongly worded letter to Cirque du Soleil’s founder and CEO, Guy Laliberte, and West Hollywood officials condemning Cirque du Soleil for firing Cusick.
Some of the nation’s most accomplished performers, artists and celebrities joined the campaign and spoke out against Cirque du Soleil for firing Cusick. They include Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera, Rosie O’Donnell, Bebe Neuwirth and Tony Kushner. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America, Kushner said, “The story of Matthew Cusick’s firing by Cirque du Soleil is only the most recent chapter in the long, dismal history of discrimination, but it’s especially shocking -- and disgraceful -- to find bigotry and ignorance about the AIDS epidemic manifest in 2004 by an organization with so many connections to the performing arts.”
A wide range of leading local, state and national groups -- including HIV/AIDS organizations, LGBT groups, athletic associations, labor organizations, medical groups and others - joined the campaign against Cirque du Soleil. Some of them include: the National Association of People with AIDS; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association; Pride at Work, AFL-CIO; The Project to Eliminate Homophobia in Sport; International Action Center; the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; the AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County; and dozens of others. The settlement of $600,000 includes $40,000 in legal costs for Lambda Legal with the rest of the money going to Cusick. Part of the settlement covers future earnings, since Cirque’s public hostility against Cusick over the last year led him to decide not to return to work for the company. “I wish none of this had ever happened, but if it had to happen I’m glad it ended with such a strong settlement that will impact other companies,” Cusick said. “I look forward to opening a new chapter in my life.”
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Contact: Fred Shank, 212/809-8585 x 267