High Court Declines HIV Disability Case
29 May 2002
-- The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear a case
brought by a Georgia dental hygienist who was demoted when his
employer discovered he was HIV-positive. Citing protection
from the Americans with Disabilities Act, Spencer Waddell
filed suit against Valley Forge Dental Associates in Atlanta.
Citing a potential threat to patients, a federal district
judge dismissed his complaint in 1999.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit backed that
decision in December 2001. Waddell appealed to the high court
three months later.
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has been
representing Waddell in the suit, says the court's rejection
leaves an apparent conflict in the ADA law.
1998, the Supreme Court ruled that a dentist may not refuse to
treat a patient with HIV, writing that "little in life is
risk-free" and that the mere existence of risk does not
automatically constitute a "direct threat" to
demotion was justified, said both the federal and appellate
courts, because there was a chance Waddell could transmit HIV
to patients. Under an exception to the ADA, employers may
discriminate if a person's disability poses a threat to other
has long insisted in this case that the discrimination Waddell
experienced was based on uncredible and indefensible bias.
Lambda noted Waddell's boss thought HIV could be transmitted
through sweat. Though no case of a dental hygienist infecting
a patient has ever been recorded, the two courts nonetheless
concluded Waddell was a potential threat.
effect," wrote Lambda, "the Court of Appeals
standard requires that, to even make it to trial, Waddell must
first prove that something that has never happened in the past
cannot possibly happen in the future, an impossible burden for
any plaintiff." Lambda said by this logic, "a host
of imaginable disasters could be hypothesized to exclude
virtually any individual with a disability."
and hygienists who adhere to universal precautions mandated by
the dental industry run virtually zero risk of transmitting
the virus. Waddell's challenge to his demotion was supported
by the American Dental Association and the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission, among others.