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Lambda and Whitman-Walker Hail Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Date

Date: 
06/25/1998

(NEW YORK, June 25, 1998) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Whitman-Walker Clinic hailed Thursday's United States Supreme Court ruling that HIV disease is within the broad scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act protection from discrimination.

Lambda and Whitman-Walker are co-counsel for 16 major medical and public health associations and individual experts that are amici in the case, Bragdon v. Abbott. It was the first case ever heard by the Supreme Court concerning either AIDS or the ADA.



Lambda

Whitman-Walker Legal ClinicLambda AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens, counsel of record for the health groups, said, "The Supreme Court unequivocally recognized the right of people with HIV and other disabilities to full protection from discrimination. I am heartened the Court saw that Congress intended the ADA to provide such broad protection -- that irrational discrimination should not be allowed to keep people with HIV from health care and services."

Daniel Bruner, Whitman-Walker's senior litigation counsel, added, "Although today's ruling addresses the case of discrimination by a dentist against one woman with early HIV disease, it opens wide the door to ADA coverage for all people with HIV."

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said, "HIV is the quintessential disability that the ADA was meant to cover. Employers and health care providers should never be allowed to act on myths, stereotypes, and irrational fears to discriminate, yet those are the barriers people with HIV and AIDS continually face."

"This ruling also ensures that, as medical advances allow more people with HIV to continue working, they can turn to the ADA for vital legal protection against employment discrimination," said Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart.

Rejecting arguments that the woman in this case did not qualify for ADA protection because her symptoms were not visible, and incorporating arguments from the Lambda-Whitman Walker amicus brief, the Court said, "In light of the immediacy with which the virus begins to damage the infected person's white blood cells and the severity of the disease, we hold it is an impairment from the moment of infection... HIV infection satisfies the statutory and regulatory definition of physical impairment during every stage of the disease..... We have little doubt that had different parties brought the suit they would have maintained that an HIV infection imposes substantial limitations on other major activities."

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The term "asymptomatic" -- which the Court noted is "a misnomer" -- has come to describe early stages of infection when an infected individual may seem symptom free. The ADA was enacted in 1990 to protect people with disabilities from discrimination by employers, insurers, and service providers.

Hanssens noted, "While Abbott's case hinged on HIV's effect on reproduction as a major life activity, the Court also recognized that evidence of HIV's impairment of a host of other life activities could be advanced to support protection under the ADA."

The ruling also rejected claims by attorneys for the dentist, Robert Bragdon, that courts should accept arguments based on doctors' personal beliefs about the risk of being infected with HIV. Refusing to create a special standard for defendants with medical degrees, the Court said that any person refusing services to someone with HIV must rely on objective and scientific evidence of risk, and not subjective fears.

Abbott was represented by Bennett Klein of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. Lambda and Whitman-Walker filed their amicus brief on behalf of groups and individuals such as the Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS directors, John G. Bartlett, M.D., June E. Osborn, M.D. (former Chair of the Congressional National Commission on AIDS), and Merle A. Sande, M.D.


(Bragdon v. Abbott, No. 97-156)

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Contact: Peg Byron, 212-809-8585 x 230 or 888-987-1984 (beeper)

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