U.S. Supreme Court Hears Three ADA Cases in Two Days, Testing Federal Civil Rights Protections for People with HIV

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Lambda urges justices not to narrow scope of landmark disabilities law
April 20, 1999

(NEW YORK, April 20, 1999) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday that upcoming hearings in three cases before the United States Supreme Court are major tests of federal civil rights protections provided people with HIV and AIDS.

Lambda assisted in friend-of-the-court briefs in all three cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and brought on behalf of three people with disabilities other than HIV. Noting that the ADA affords strong anti-discrimination protections for people with HIV, Lambda urged the High Court to uphold the law's promise of fair treatment for all people with disabilities.

On Wednesday, April 28, Catherine A. Hanssens, director of the Lambda AIDS Project, will be available outside the U.S. Supreme Court following hearings in Kirkingburg v. Albertsons and Sutton v. United Airlines. The day before, the justices hear arguments in Murphy v. United Parcel Service.

"An alarming Catch-22 binds these cases together -- if people gain some measure of control over their disabilities and are able to work, they risk losing federal anti-discrimination protections," said Hanssens.

Lambda took part in amicus briefs in Sutton and Murphy, and co-authored a brief in Kirkingburg with Bennett H. Klein, director of the AIDS Law Project of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. The briefs argue that people with HIV and other disabilities whose impairments may not be extremely debilitating, or can be curbed using medical treatments, nonetheless face discrimination and should not be excluded from the ADA's protection.

Klein noted, "The cluster of cases in the High Court's docket signals the intense conflict over exactly who is protected by the ADA, and the outcome will profoundly affect the rights of people with HIV."

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn, explaining the significance of all the cases to people with HIV, said, "The ADA is our most powerful weapon for combating the rampant epidemic of ignorance and fear about HIV and AIDS. Once an exception has been made for one kind of disability, an exception for HIV and AIDS likely will not be far behind."

At issue in Kirkingburg is whether or not ADA protections should be contingent upon the severity of a disability. The case involves Hallie Kirkingburg, a truck driver with monocular vision from Portland, Oregon, who has had an impeccable driving record since 1979. Kirkingburg was terminated by his employer even though a doctor deemed him able to drive a commercial vehicle safely.

Albertsons, the large grocery store chain that employed Kirkingburg, cited the impairment in firing him, but later argued in court that the monocular vision is not severe enough to be a "disability" that warrants ADA protections. Lambda's brief urged the justices to uphold a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year rejecting that reasoning.

Noting the parallel between Kirkingburg and many people with HIV who are able to work despite their infection, Hanssens said, "Disability does not mean inability. Many people with disabilities have the skills and qualifications to be excellent employees." She added, "The ADA was enacted so that discrimination does not lock those people out of jobs or career advancement."

Sutton and Murphy both raise the related question of whether the ADA protects disabilities that can be controlled or alleviated through medication. In both cases, the Tenth Circuit ruled that disabilities must be considered in light of mitigating circumstances before ADA protections can be extended.

The Sutton case was brought by Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton, twin sisters from Colorado with poor but correctable vision. The women were denied positions as United Airlines pilots despite having already amassed thousands of flight hours as lead pilots for regional commuter airlines, holding medical certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration, and having airline transport licenses that supercede those for commercial airline pilots.

In Murphy, United Parcel Service, relying on health guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, terminated mechanic Robert Murphy for having high blood pressure. When left unmedicated, Murphy had argued that his condition affected his major life activities, including his ability to work.

Lambda urged reversal of the appellate rulings in each case, aware that Sutton and Murphy raise questions which also can be applied to people with HIV who are doing well on combination therapy. Lambda joined an amicus brief authored by the national Employment Law Project arguing that a disability, when being considered for ADA protection, should be evaluated in its untreated state.

"Drugs fight HIV, but not AIDS-phobia, fear, or ignorance. People who wage successful battles to overcome their disabilities should not be penalized and left defenseless against discrimination from those who nevertheless shun them," said Hanssens. She added, "The Tenth Circuit decisions effectively gut the ADA of its intended purpose -- fighting discrimination against people with disabilities who are perfectly able to perform their jobs," said Hanssens.

The Court this term has taken two other cases in addition to these three involving the civil rights law passed in 1990. Earlier this year, Lambda filed an amicus brief in one of them, Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems, and on April 21, the High Court will hear arguments in Olmstead v. L.C.

In Cleveland, a Dallas woman is fighting her employer who insists she is not eligible for ADA protections because she had filed for Social Security Disability benefits.

Last year, Lambda assisted GLAD in securing a precedent-setting victory in Bragdon v. Abbott, the Supreme Court case affirming the ADA's anti-discrimination protections for people with HIV from the moment of infection. Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS.

WHAT: With three ADA cases during two days of hearings, the U.S. Supreme Court tests federal civil rights protections for people with HIV; Lambda assisted in amicus briefs in all of them WHO: Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens will be available on the second day of hearings WHEN: Wednesday, April 28, 1999, following 10:00 a.m. argument WHERE: United States Supreme Court, 1 First Street, NE, Washington, DC CONTACT: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 or 888-987-1984; Catherine Hanssens 212-809-8585; Bennett Klein 617-426-1350

(Albertsons v. Kirkingburg, No. 98-591, Murphy v. United Parcel Service, No. 97-1992, Sutton v. United Airlines, No. 97-1943)


Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585, 888-987-1984 pager; Catherine Hanssens, 212-808-8585


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