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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”



High Court Declines HIV Disability Case
Wednesday, 29 May 2002

WASHINGTON -- 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.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit backed that decision in December 2001. Waddell appealed to the high court three months later.

The 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.

In 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 others.


Waddell's 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 people.

Lambda 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.

"In 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."


Dentists 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.

-- Editor