Supreme Court Won't Hear HIV-Demoted Case
May 29, 2002
A dental hygienist demoted when his employer discovered he has HIV lost his bid for a Supreme Court appeal Tuesday. The high court could have used the case to further clarify the rights of the disabled under a landmark civil rights law.
Spencer Waddell tested positive for HIV in 1996, while employed as a dental hygienist for Atlanta dentist Eugene Witkin. Witkin found out about Waddell's HIV status and removed Waddell from his job treating patients the next year. Witkin offered Waddell a clerical job paying half as much, but Waddell refused and was fired. Waddell sued in 1999, claiming discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He lost in lower federal courts, which found that the risk of HIV transmission, although negligible, was sufficient to justify Waddell's removal from a job in which he had contact with patients' mouths.
Waddell's lawyers from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund argue that the risk of serious harm from Waddell's infection was "vanishingly small" and entirely theoretical. The issue for the Supreme Court would have been whether Waddell's case falls under an exception built into the 1990 disabilities rights law. The ADA guarantees fair treatment for the disabled on the job and elsewhere and says employers may not discriminate against a disabled person who is qualified to do a given job. The ADA also says that an employer does not have to hire or retain an employee who poses a direct threat to others' health and safety. In December, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that the exception applies to Waddell.
Numerous medical organizations have said that an HIV-positive hygienist does not pose a significant risk of passing on the infection so long as he or she takes standard precautions. "If left uncorrected, the 11th Circuit's decision threatens to undermine the public's confidence in the safety of dental treatment and the nation's health care system," the American Dental Association said in a friend of the court brief filed in Waddell's case. The case is Waddell v. Valley Forge Medical Associates Inc., 01-1423.
05.28.02; Anne Gearan
This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.