ACLU Lawsuit Charges U.S. Department of State Discriminated Against Former Veteran Because He Has HIV

January 12, 2009 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. State Department and its contractor Triple Canopy, Inc., of Herndon, Virginia, are denying responsibility for refusing a job to a decorated Special Forces veteran because he has HIV. The veteran, who is represented in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, was denied a security job with Triple Canopy under its contract to protect the U.S. Embassy in Haiti for the State Department. A motion filed by Triple Canopy late Friday confirms that the State Department contract required a negative HIV test for all employees. The ACLU charges that this requirement violates the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans for Disabilities Act.

“After putting my life on the line for my country for more than 20 years, I can’t believe my government is saying that I’m unworthy to work because I have HIV,” said John Doe (who is going by a pseudonym to protect himself and his family from further discrimination). “I need this job to support my family. I’m in good health, well qualified and eager to serve.”

In October 2005, Doe applied, and was accepted, to work for Triple Canopy to provide personal security for the U.S. embassy in Haiti. On November 9, 2005, the day before graduating from the training program, a director for the company told him he was being let go because the State Department would not allow workers with HIV to be deployed oversees.

According to the motion filed by Triple Canopy on Friday, the “Worldwide Personal Protective Services Contract,” which the State Department used to hire contractors to fulfill U.S. security needs around the globe required that all personnel working under the contract produce a “[v]alid negative HIV result within six (6) months of report date to FDC [Forward Deployment Center].” The contract also lists “suggested physical standards,” which include a requirement that all contractor personnel be “free from communicable disease.” Yet, in its own answer to the lawsuit, the State Department claims that its contract with Triple Canopy doesn’t bar people with HIV from employment.

“It is bad enough that people with HIV continue to face discrimination because of fear and lack of understanding about how HIV is transmitted,” said Rose Saxe of the ACLU’s AIDS Project. “But it is especially troublesome when a government contract is at the root of that discrimination. We need the courts to make it clear to the government and its contractors that they cannot discriminate against qualified people because they have HIV.”

Triple Canopy is also claiming that it was justified in denying Doe the job because he posed a risk to others because he has HIV. “But as we have known for years, people with HIV can safely work in jobs like law enforcement and security,” said Saxe. “There was no reason Doe could not have done the job.”

Doe, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2000, served his country for 20 years, until his retirement from the Army in September 2001. From 2004 to 2005, he worked for Defense Department contractors in Iraq, where he led security teams on military bases. In each of these jobs, the government was aware that Doe had HIV, and had no problem with him performing the jobs in war zones in Iraq.

Like many people with HIV, Doe remains healthy with an undetectable viral load. Doe is currently working in construction, earning much less than his promised salary with Triple Canopy, and making it difficult for his family to make ends meet.

After being terminated by Triple Canopy, Doe filed a charge with the E.E.O.C. against the company. After conducting an investigation into the firing, the E.E.O.C. issued a Right to Sue letter, finding there was “reasonable cause” to believe that Triple Canopy had illegally fired Doe in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This case is the latest in a string of challenges against the U.S. government for discrimination against people with HIV in the workplace. In July 2008, the ACLU, advocating on behalf of a volunteer, persuaded the Peace Corps to eliminate its policy of automatically barring volunteers with HIV. In February 2008, the State Department settled a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of a Foreign Service Worker for HIV discrimination and agreed to eliminate its policy of automatically excluding workers with HIV.

A copy of the complaint filed by the ACLU and the State Department’s answer is available at /hiv/discrim/38209res20081223.html.

In addition to Saxe, Doe is being represented by Leslie Cooper, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s AIDS Project; Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area; and Richard A. Rosen, Patricia Crowley Corcoran, Donna M. Ioffredo, and Ilana D. Waxman of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

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