December 7, 2000
In friend-of-the-court briefs submitted this week, the organizations argue there was no valid medical or legal reason for an Atlanta-area dental office to fire Spencer Waddell, a 37-year-old hygienist whose skills, training, and use of standard precautions ensure the safety of his clinical practice.
"What happened to Spencer Waddell was based on fear, not facts, about HIV and AIDS. The experts speaking out for Spencer have an important education message for the court and the public that people with HIV can and do safely work in health care," said Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow from New York, adding, "Hysteria and ignorance should not take away a qualified professional's job."
Waddell was fired from his job in 1997 after his HIV status was revealed to his employer. Lambda sued the employer, Valley Forge Dental Associates, for violating laws including the Americans with Disability Act, which forbids job discrimination based on HIV or other disability status.
The case, Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates, is before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, following an August decision by a lower court that dismissed Waddell's claims with the erroneous conclusion that his practice as a hygienist posed a significant risk of HIV transmission to patients -- something that has never happened in the history of the epidemic. In its appeal, Lambda argues that the lower court ruling conflicts with the 1998 United States Supreme Court decision in Bragdon v. Abbott, which requires that decisions about whether health care professionals pose a significant risk of transmitting HIV to patients be scientifically based.
"Spencer Waddell is a dedicated, accomplished professional whose skill level, overall health, and careful attention to infection control procedures ensure his patients' well being. If his former employer had based its reaction on science, as the courts require, rather than irrational fear, he would still be providing skilled and safe care for patients at Valley Forge Dental Associates," said Staff Attorney Stephen R. Scarborough of Lambda's Southern Regional Office. Scarborough is working on the case with Lambda Cooperating Attorney Chip Rowan of Rowan & Associates in Atlanta.
Said Waddell, "I appreciate the willingness of prominent dental, public health, and government agencies to help the court and the public understand the facts about HIV. Sharing their expertise will help calm fears that are not based in reality." Waddell is currently working at Grady Oral Health Clinic in Atlanta.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and Whitman-Walker Clinic Legal Services Program authored the brief on behalf of the eight public health organizations.
Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Associates Amici in Support of Plaintiff-Appellant