Lambda to U.S. Supreme Court: ADA Protects People with HIV

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Gay legal group represents professional health associations in Supreme Court's first AIDS case
March 17, 1998

(NEW YORK, Tuesday, March 17, 1998) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, on behalf of a host of major medical and public health associations, urges the United States Supreme Court to rule that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with HIV.

The Supreme Court will hear argument about its first AIDS-related discrimination case, Randon Bragdon, DMD v. Sidney Abbott, et al, on Monday, March 30. Lambda attorneys, Catherine Hanssens and Heather Sawyer, will be available for questions after the hearing.

"The Court must understand that the AIDS crisis has released an epidemic of discrimination," said Hanssens, Lambda AIDS Project director and co-author of a friend-of-the-court brief in the case about whether a Maine dentist violated the ADA when he refused to provide routine dental treatment in his office to a woman with HIV.

"The ADA is the best hope for legal protection for people with HIV. That law must not be distorted to cut out hundreds of thousands of people who are HIV positive," she said.

Lambda and co-authors from Whitman-Walker Clinic Legal Services Department filed the legal brief on behalf of more than a dozen of the country's leading medical and public health associations and individual experts.

At issue is whether people who have HIV but currently appear asymptomatic are covered by the ADA. The term "asymptomatic" has come to describe early stages of infection when, despite the constant viral attack occurring in the immune system, 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.

Sawyer, referring to arguments Lambda made on behalf of 10 national health groups and six individual public health and medical experts, said, "Health care providers like dentists cannot exempt themselves from findings of medical science and federal law. They should not be free to make arbitrary and discriminatory decisions that have no basis in science and harm the public." A staff attorney in Lambda's Midwest Regional Office in Chicago, Sawyer assisted in writing the brief.

She said, "From the start, HIV infection is a serious impairment, even when it does not cause clinical symptoms. Among other things, it limits human intimacy, sexual activity, diet, procreation, and parenting. Furthermore, people with HIV often suffer discrimination on the basis of their disability."

Lambda Legal Defense Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said, "Denying ADA protection to people because their HIV infection is not obvious would undermine public health goals -- it would discourage testing and treatment and encourage people to hide their HIV status." He asked, "Why reveal, or even learn your status if that information means you can be denied treatment or fired from your job?"

As for the Bangor, Maine, dentist's fears about filling a cavity for someone with HIV, Sawyer noted, "The risks of a dental worker acquiring HIV on the job are virtually nil."

Lambda's brief notes: "Despite the millions of dental procedures that have been performed since the first reported case of AIDS in 1981, there has been no documented case of occupational transmission of HIV to a dental worker."

Said Jon Davidson, supervising attorney for Lambda's Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, "A health care provider's personal, unsubstantiated opinion cannot be allowed to undermine findings of medical science and federal law."

Abbott, whose claim against the dentist was upheld at both the trial and appeals court level, is represented by Bennett Klein of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.

Noting conflicting ADA rulings from courts around the country, Davidson said, "Federal courts have been confused about how to apply the ADA to people whose disabilities do not have apparent symptoms. We hope the Supreme Court will stop the erosion of this critical anti-discrimination law."

He added, "The Supreme Court's decision about the scope of protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act will profoundly affect the entire country -- from public health efforts to combat this epidemic, to individuals with HIV and many others in the community with disabilities that don't 'measure up' to unfair and ignorant standards for what constitutes a disability."

Lambda and Whitman-Walker filed the 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.

WHO: Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens and Staff Attorney Heather Sawyer of Lambda's Midwest Regional Office

WHAT: Respond to questions regarding Bragdon v. Abbott, first case concerning HIV discrimination and the ADA argued to the U.S. Supreme Court

WHEN: Monday, March 30, immediately after 10 a.m. hearing

WHERE: Plaza outside U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C.

CONTACT: Kathy Strieder or Peg Byron, 212-809-8585, 888-987-1984 (pager)

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


Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585, 888-987-1984 pager
Catherine Hanssens, 212-809-8585
Heather Sawyer, 312-663-4413


Contact Info

Related Issues: HIV