Lambda Legal Joins HIV Employment Discrimination Case Against Juice Maker

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December 15, 2014

This article was co-authored by Lambda Legal Counsel Greg Nevins and HIV Project Director Scott Schoettes.

In November, Lambda Legal client Chanse Cox officially joined a lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Suncup Packaging after Cox’s dismissal from his job as a machine operator at Suncup’s orange juice packaging plant in Georgia simply because he is living with HIV.

By July 2012, Cox had worked on the assembly line for five months, when a fellow employee “outed” him regarding his HIV status to other employees by mistakenly identifying a harmless skin condition as AIDS-related and raising entirely unfounded concerns about HIV transmission in the workplace. Because Cox knew that his HIV status was completely irrelevant to his ability to perform his job safely and effectively, he decided to get out in front of the rumors and any accompanying misinformation by telling his supervisor that he indeed was HIV-positive. Unfortunately — and much to Chanse’s surprise — his employer was as uninformed about HIV as his rumormongering fellow employee and fired him shortly thereafter, citing his HIV status as the reason.

To anyone who knows even the slightest bit about HIV and its transmission, the notion that a person living with HIV working in a food processing plant — much less a food packaging plant — would present a risk to the health and safety of other employees or the consuming public is preposterous. Since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) almost 25 years ago, when an attempt by a few misguided Senators to insert into the bill an exception that would allow for discrimination against people living with HIV in the food service industry was soundly defeated, it has been clear that the circumstances in which a person living with HIV might actually present a risk to others through the work that they do were extremely limited. And years of experience litigating under the ADA — and the “direct threat” exception to its mandate for fair and equal employment for people with disabilities — have taught us there are in fact no significant risks to the health or safety of others that result from the occupation of a person living with HIV.

So why, you might ask, is Lambda Legal, as an impact litigation organization, involved in a case that seems like such a “slam dunk”? Well, for one thing, because companies like this one continue to get it so blatantly wrong, and seem to think they can get away with mistreating their HIV-positive employees based on unfounded fears and ignorance. A big win in court — or a substantial settlement in Chanse’s favor — would send a strong signal to employers that they are not going to get away with this type of discrimination against people living with HIV. And it speaks volumes that the EEOC, which is tasked with ensuring enforcement of the employment antidiscrimination laws through strategic litigation, decided to bring this suit. Lambda Legal is proud to be standing with the EEOC in holding this company’s feet to the fire and getting the message out that discrimination like this will not be tolerated.

But there is another reason that Lambda Legal thinks this particular case is important: its location in Georgia, where rates of new infections are among the highest in the country. If we are going to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic that continues almost unabated in this country — and is, in fact, growing within the gay and bisexual community — then we must address the misinformation, stigma and discrimination that continue to fuel it, particularly in communities and geographic locales where these forces are at their most virulent.

The appellate court in which this case would eventually be heard is one of the two or three in this country that are farthest behind in how they address claims of HIV discrimination under the ADA. And it is no surprise that most of the states within the jurisdiction of these courts — the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas — also are among the states with the highest rates of new infections. The blame for the continuing rate of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in these states obviously cannot be placed entirely at the foot of these appellate courts or the decisions they make allowing for HIV discrimination to continue, but they certainly are not (currently) part of the solution. And if they are not part of the solution, then they are part of the problem.

We need all hands on deck to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic affecting our communities, particularly across the South, and Lambda Legal is choosing to be there, to help bring everyone on board in this fight. We hope you will continue to watch this case and become a part of our efforts to assist in achieving an AIDS-free generation!