Illinois J.C. Penney Store Fired Man Because of His HIV-Positive Status, Lawsuit Says

Attorneys representing a former shoe department manager at a J.C. Penney store in Niles, Ill., last week in an Illinois state court filed a lawsuit alleging the man was fired in 2003 because of his HIV-positive status, the Chicago Tribune reports. The suit -- filed in Cook County Circuit Court -- alleges that Joseph Manasse was falsely accused of theft by managers at the J.C. Penney store in order to fire him because they were uncomfortable with his HIV-positive status, according to the Tribune. Manasse -- who is seeking more than $7 million in damages -- ran the shoe department for 15 months until May 20, 2003, when he was fired. During his tenure as manager, shoe sales increased by 11%, the department's staff grew from four to 11 people, and Manasse received a merit pay raise and excellent performance review less than one month before his firing, according to the suit. Manasse said his managers told him he was being fired because cash registers were short a combined $66.20 from three separate days and they had caught him on closed circuit monitors stealing money. The J.C. Penney store charged him with theft, but he was found not guilty by a judge, the suit says, adding that Manasse has been unable to find employment because of the theft charge on his credit report (Rose, Chicago Tribune, 5/24). Store manager James Voeller and loss-prevention managers Michael Chubeck and Rodney Wetmore also were named as defendants in the suit (Scheffler, Crain's Chicago Business, 5/19).

Reaction, Past Lawsuits
Manasse said the accusation that he stole money from J.C. Penney "still haunts him," adding, "[T]his has been following me now for two years," reports (Tucker,, 5/19). An unnamed J.C. Penney spokesperson declined to discuss specifics of the suit but said, "We always attempt to conduct our business in a proper and ethical manner and respect the rights of all our employees," the AP/Belleville News Democrat reports (AP/Belleville News Democrat, 5/24). The number of complaints and lawsuits alleging HIV/AIDS-related discrimination has decreased since a string of suits in federal courts in the 1990s, according to the Tribune. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which took effect in 1992, is seen as an effective way for challenging discrimination in the workplace, according to the Tribune. However, according to some attorneys, subsequent court rulings have limited the definition of disability, making it harder for people living with conditions such as HIV to win favorable court rulings, the Tribune reports. "It's actually pretty rare that an employee will receive a written notice saying the firing is because of HIV status," Jon Givner, HIV project director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said, adding, "More often employers rely on pretexts or don't actually fire someone but discriminate in more subtle ways" (Chicago Tribune, 5/24).

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