Lambda to Argue Appeal of Dental Worker Fired for Having HIV

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Two decades into AIDS epidemic, unfounded fears still cause discrimination
May 16, 2001

(ATLANTA, May 16, 2001) — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is urging a federal court in Atlanta to rule that a dental hygienist’s employer violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing him after learning he has HIV.

On Tuesday, May 22, Lambda Staff Attorney Stephen Scarborough will argue before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates; afterwards, Scarborough, Lambda’s client Spencer Waddell, and Lambda Cooperating Attorney Chip Rowan of Rowan & Associates will be available to discuss the case.

“Spencer Waddell is a competent, dedicated dental hygienist. The ‘universal precautions’ that his profession requires all hygienists to take, the techniques he uses, prevent HIV transmission during dental care, so there was no reason for him to lose his job,” Scarborough said, adding, “That is why the American Dental Association and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have joined us in this case.”

Waddell, now 38, was fired in 1997 after his HIV status was revealed to his employer, Valley Forge Dental Associates, an Atlanta-area dental office. Lambda sued the employer for violating laws including the ADA, which forbids job discrimination based on HIV or other disability status.

Last August, a lower court dismissed Waddell’s claims. Even though there has not been one case of HIV transmission from a dental hygienist to a patient in the 20 years of the AIDS epidemic, the Court ignored the testimony of public health experts that patients have nothing to fear and ruled that dental hygienists pose a significant risk of HIV transmission to patients because they use sharp instruments. In its appeal, Lambda argues that the lower court ruling conflicts with undisputed public health evidence and the 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bragdon v. Abbott, which requires that decisions relating to health care professionals and risk of HIV transmission be scientifically based.

Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens said, “We are two decades into this epidemic, yet many employers still don’t get that they cannot fire workers based on unfounded fears and misconceptions. All medical evidence shows that people with HIV can work safely as health care professionals.”

Said Waddell, “Dental professionals, of all people, should know better than to remove me from clinical practice solely on the basis of HIV. The medical evidence shows that I pose no risk.”

The American Dental Association and the EEOC, as well as nine other public health organizations, signed amicus briefs on Waddell’s behalf.

Lambda, which successfully brought the first case in the country against AIDS-related discrimination, is the oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. Lambda’s headquarters are in New York and regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. Lambda will open an office in Dallas in 2002.

WHAT: Oral argument in Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates WHO: Staff Attorney Stephen R. Scarborough, Lambda Cooperating Attorney Chip Rowan of Rowan & Associates, and their client Spencer Waddell will be available for comment after the hearing WHERE: Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, 56 Forsyth Street, NW, Atlanta, GA WHEN: Tuesday, May 22, 9:00 a.m. EST

(Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates, No. 00-14896-AA) — 30 —

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