Lambda Helps Win Protections for Employees with HIV

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California Appeals Court Upholds Right to Work with a Disability
April 10, 1998

(LOS ANGELES, April 10, 1998) -- A California appeals court Thursday affirmed the right of people who seek disability payments after losing a job to challenge the firing as discriminatory.

In Bell v. Wells Fargo Bank, the court ruled that Andrew Bell, an HIV-positive man who worked for Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, could pursue an anti-discrimination lawsuit against his former employer even though he had applied for disability benefits.

"This ruling vindicates the right of people with disabilities to challenge discrimination after employers refuse to make reasonable accommodations for them," said Myron Dean Quon, staff attorney for Lambda and co-author of Lambda's friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "Wells Fargo failed in its attempt to distract the court from the real issue of its conduct."

The court found yesterday that a person with HIV who applies for disability benefits is still protected by California's Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibiting employment discrimination.

Bell was able to keep his job and his health benefits for the two years during which Wells Fargo Bank permitted him to work a four-day week, one from home via telecommunication. While working under these accommodations, Bell was promoted from bank examiner to vice president. He also received consistently positive evaluations throughout his tenure.

However, when new management revoked the arrangement -- which Bell asserts was needed due to his HIV-related illness -- he was unable to continue working, and he filed for disability benefits. Bell also filed suit against Wells Fargo Bank under FEHA, claiming that the schedule accommodation was required due to his disability and that revoking the accommodation forced him out of his job.

The appeals court recognized that the original schedule and telecommuting accommodation not only had allowed Bell to do his regular work, but to excel at it. The court noted that Bell's later application for disability benefits should not be a "death sentence" for his claim that Wells Fargo's arbitrary revocation of that accommodation was discriminatory.

"The ability to seek and maintain flexible work arrangements that allow people with disabilities to be productive members of society is particularly important to people living with HIV, as developing drug therapies make it possible for more people to return to work," said Catherine Hanssens, Lambda's AIDS project director.

Wells Fargo Bank had persuaded the trial court to dismiss Bell's claim based on the assertion that his receipt of disability benefits amounts to a concession that he could not do his job under any circumstances. That court invoked a doctrine called "judicial estoppel," intended to prevent litigants from taking mutually exclusive positions in related court proceedings. Lambda's friend-of-the-court brief on appeal argued that the doctrine barring totally inconsistent positions does not apply to Bell and similar cases where the facts allow a conclusion that the person with a disability was able to do his job at the time he was forced to leave.

(Bell v. Wells Fargo Bank, Case No. A078258)


Contact: Kathy Strieder, 212-809-8585, 888-987-1984 (pager); Myron Dean Quon, 213-937-2728


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