Lambda Sues on Behalf of Dental Hygienist Fired for Having HIV

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Federal case tests landmark ruling on ADA and HIV
January 29, 1999

(ATLANTA, January 29, 1999) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, applying a United States Supreme Court decision recognizing that federal anti-discrimination law protects people with HIV, announced Friday its lawsuit on behalf of an Atlanta dental hygienist fired solely because of his HIV-status.

Lambda, which won the nation's first HIV discrimination case in 1983, filed the lawsuit, Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates, on Thursday in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of the 35-year-old healthcare worker, Spencer Waddell.

"There is a simple answer to concerns about HIV in the healthcare setting -- use gloves, masks, sterilized instruments and the rest of what is known as universal precautions. The dental clinic in our case chose to defer to stigma and fired our client instead of relying on those simple procedures," said Staff Attorney Stephen R. Scarborough of Lambda's Southern Regional Office.

"A rampant epidemic of irrational fear threatens the careers of many healthcare professionals who have HIV. This case aims to replace bias and fear with science as the basis for healthcare employment decisions," he added.

The suit charges that Valley Forge Dental Associates illegally terminated Waddell's employment because it feared patients would object to receiving medical care from someone with HIV. The suit seeks punitive and compensatory damages under the Georgia Equal Employment for the Disabled Code, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the federal Rehabilitation Act.

Lambda Cooperating Attorney Chip Rowan, of the Atlanta law firm Rowan & Associates, said, "Spencer is a skilled professional who followed universal precautions against transmission and at no time put any patients at risk. The defendant knows that there is no justification for firing him."

He added, "Valley Forge wants to cater to baseless fears about being treated by someone with HIV. If patients were uncomfortable being around an African-American dental hygienist, would Valley Forge have taken the same steps?"

Said Waddell, "AIDS-phobia is a far greater danger than I could ever be in the workplace. Irrational fear about AIDS and HIV shouldn't cost the community the skills and dedication of qualified healthcare workers."

Waddell was licensed to become a dental hygienist in 1992 and began working for a dental clinic operated by Valley Forge in January 1996. During his employment, Waddell consistently received favorable work evaluations and was never disciplined. In fact, he has held elected positions with local and state dental hygienists' associations and has had professional speaking engagements in his field.

Valley Forge learned of Waddell's HIV status in September 1997 and immediately placed Waddell on temporary leave of absence. Waddell later refused an offer to be demoted to a lower- paying, non-clinical job, and was promptly fired.

"Health care professionals, by virtue of their medical opinions, do not have a special license to discriminate against people with HIV," said AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens from Lambda's New York headquarters, referring to last year's landmark decision in Bragdon v. Abbott.

In Bragdon, the justices ruled that, under the ADA, documented, scientific evidence, and not unfounded fear of transmission alone, was needed to justify a discriminatory action against someone with HIV. Lambda co-authored an amicus brief on behalf of 16 national public health and medical organizations and individuals in that case.

Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS. Founded in 1973, it is headquartered in New York and has regional offices in Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

(Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates)


Contact: Stephen R. Scarborough 404-897-1880, ext. 23; Peg Byron 212-809-8585, ext. 230, 888-987-1984 pager


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