Tuesday, July 11, 2006

HIV Discrimination?

Here's another one of those stories that seems sort of reasonable at first:
A federal judge this week dismissed an HIV discrimination lawsuit brought last year by an AIDS activist against the former owner of a Schofield restaurant.

District Judge Barbara Crabb concluded that Korrin Krause Stewart failed to show that her HIV-positive status substantially limited a major life activity, a requirement to succeed in a disability suit.

Stewart, 21, was born with the disease. She sued Lee's Log Cabin Inc. after she failed to get an interview for a waitress job for which she had applied in March 2004. A few days after applying, Stewart returned to the restaurant to add dishwasher experience to her job application. She then noticed that Curtis Zastrow, a manager trainee, had written "HIV+" across the top of the application.

Crabb, however, ruled that Stewart's HIV status didn't meet the definition of disability because she didn't show any impairment due to her HIV status. Being impaired doesn't mean disabled under Americans With Disabilities Act case law, unless the plaintiff can show it limits her ability to eat, breathe, reproduce or other major life activity.

"In the present case, however, plaintiff has adduced no evidence regarding the impact of HIV on any of Stewart's major life activities. ... No reasonable jury could conclude from the evidence plaintiff has adduced that having HIV rendered Stewart disabled," Crabb wrote in the 10-page opinion.
Obviously, refusing to hire someone because they have HIV is a shitty thing to do regardless of whether or not their condition is disabling. Let's make that perfectly clear first. But given that a great many people with HIV are in perfect physical condition, it does make sense that HIV infection is not considered to be a priori evidence of disability, and therefore it makes a certain amount of sense to say that this woman's complaint didn't fall under ADA enforcement. Or, it seems to, anyway.

But guess again:
The EEOC filed suit, claiming unlawful refusal to hire on account of HIV status. In responding to the defendant’s motion to dismiss, EEOC provided information about how Stewart as a person with AIDS was physically limited in her major life activities, in order to establish her identity as an "individual with a disability" under the ADA.

Judge Crabb, asserting that there is a big difference between being HIV+ and having AIDS, found that the complaint only asserted discrimination based on HIV+ status, not AIDS, and therefore the evidence about how AIDS limits Stewart’s major life activities was not relevant to the question whether she had a disability under the ADA. [...] Crabbe would not credit any of the EEOC’s evidence about the impact of AIDS on Stewart’s abilities, because of the purported distinction Crabbe found between HIV and AIDS.
Abruptly, the story veers from "makes a certain amount of sense" to "batshit crazy." HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. A person infected with HIV becomes "AIDS-defined" when they develop one of the disease's characteristic opportunistic infections, or when their CD4+ (T-cell) count drops low enough to make them extremely vulnerable to such infections. In other words, by saying that Stewart had AIDS, the EEOC was simply saying "She's HIV-positive and it has made her sick" - the very thing the documentation was supposed to prove. Judge Crabb's "gotcha" claim that the EEOC shifted arguments midstream by bringing AIDS into it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense.

What on earth is going on? I don't think Crabb's been swayed by the claims of AIDS denialists. Is she just prejudiced, and looking for any justification, however specious, to ensure that someone with HIV won't be pouring her coffee? It's a possibility. But I also wonder about this:
Dean Lee, the restaurant's owner at the time, had said that Stewart wasn't hired because she put a 10-pound lifting restriction on her application. Since 1980, the job has required that waitresses be able to lift 20 to 25 pounds about 20 times per shift, he said.
Law professor Art Leonard comments, "after reading Crabb’s summary of the EEOC’s evidence of Stewart’s AIDS-related symptoms, one wonders how anybody so afflicted could possibly provide effective service as a waitress." I wonder that too, and I imagine that Crabb wondered it as well. It seems possible that Judge Crabb developed the conviction that Stewart didn't apply for the job in good faith, and then looked for reasons to reject the complaint. It's hard to imagine how a person might legitimately think that they could work a waitressing job without ever having to lift more than ten pounds. Was Stewart trying to provoke a confrontation?

Stewart had already won one employment discrimination case locally - that's how the restaurant manager knew that she had HIV. The earlier case seems as clear an open-and-shut example of HIV discrimination as you'll ever see - she lost her job as a supermarket bagger because the management was afraid she'd infect customers or other employees. (They didn't specify how.) Now, I don't have a very hard time believing that Schofield, Wisconsin is particularly ignorant about HIV, or that a young HIV-positive woman living there might be discriminated against twice in three years. But I keep coming back to the fact that, on her job application for a waitressing position, she said that she couldn't lift more than ten pounds. That's when I stop being able to buy her as the innocent victim of discrimination. She might've been trying to be a provocateur, to raise awareness of HIV discrimination. She might've been out for settlement money. I haven't the slightest idea. But, no matter how much I strain to give her the benefit of the doubt, I just can't think that she was out to work as a waitress.

(Via The Gimp Parade.)