Federal Court Rejects HIV-Based Job Discrimination, Ties Employment to Individual Capabilities, Not Bias

March 10, 2000 12:00 am

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CHATTANOOGA, TN–Striking a blow against job discrimination based on HIV status, a federal court today reversed a lower court decision that allowed the city of Chattanooga to refuse to hire a man as a police officer just because he has HIV.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Louis Holiday “was entitled to be evaluated based on his actual abilities and relevant medical evidence, and to be protected from discrimination founded on fear, ignorance and misconceptions.” In a strongly worded, precedent-setting decision, the court ruled that the city may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to hire Holiday because he has HIV.

“This ruling makes it clear that medically related employment decisions, whether they are about HIV or any other disability, must be based on facts about the individual, not based solely on opinion — even a doctor’s opinion,” said Matthew Coles, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s AIDS Project. “The court has sent a strong message to employers: You cannot discriminate against employees or job applicants just because they have HIV.”

In today’s ruling in Louis Holiday v. City of Chattanooga, the court explicitly said that the ADA mandates an “individualized inquiry” in determining whether an employee can be disqualified from a particular position. The court found that the city did not consider documentation and physical tests that strongly suggest Holiday was capable of performing the job. Today, Holiday is a police officer with the Tennessee Capitol Police.

Coles noted that over the last 15 years, employers have claimed that the threat of HIV transmission on the job disqualified applicants from employment. “We’re seeing progress, which this case illustrates. The city initially claimed that hiring Mr. Holiday would be a risk because he might transmit HIV while on the job, but later dropped that claim,” Coles said. “But some employers still claim that employees with HIV pose a health threat — particularly in police, firefighting and medicine.”

For example, a trial will begin in May in the ACLU’s case against an Oregon ski resort that demoted a man because he refused to take an HIV test after the resort learned that his wife has HIV. The man was a ski patroller — which would require him to administer first aid in emergencies — but after he refused an HIV test, the resort transferred him to a job removing snow from the parking lot during the night shift. That case is John Doe v. Oregon Resort.

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