Woman with HIV receives cash settlement

A Philadelphia woman with HIV who says she was wrongfully prevented from enrolling in a training program of her choice due to her HIV status has received an undisclosed cash settlement from the school.

The woman, who was born with HIV, attempted to enroll in the medical-assisting program at Thompson Institute in West Philadelphia about a year ago, said Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

During the enrollment process, the woman voluntarily disclosed her HIV status to the admissions counselor, Goldfein said.

“She wanted to tell them what an understanding, sensitive, compassionate medical assistant she would be, because she has personal challenges,” Goldfein explained.

In response, the admissions counselor allegedly told the woman she should enroll in the school’s medical office-management program — presumably because she would have less physical contact with people, Goldfein said.

“The conduct of the counselor, as alleged, is clearly illegal under federal, state and local laws because he treated a prospective student differently due to her HIV status,” Goldfein said. “As long as you’re treating someone differently, and the motivating factor is HIV, that’s illegal.”

Goldfein said the woman was unhappy with the substitute program.

“She hesitantly agreed to the alternate program even though she had no interest, because she was afraid to challenge the professional from the school,” Goldfein added. “Almost immediately, she realized it wasn’t for her and she stopped attending classes.”

Jeremiah Staropoli, president of Thompson Institute, declined to comment for this story other than to say that the school complies with all applicable nondiscrimination laws.

The woman couldn’t be reached for comment. PGN is withholding her name due to the state’s HIV Privacy Act.

The woman had mixed feelings about paying a bill sent to her by Thompson for fees she allegedly incurred in the medical office-management program.

“She was going to honor the financial commitment, but she couldn’t accept the idea that she somehow would present a risk to someone else simply by being a medical assistant,” Goldfein added. “That idea was troubling to her. But her doctor made it clear that, of course, she wasn’t a risk.”

Goldfein said the woman’s personal physician encouraged her to consider her legal options since she posed no threat to prospective patients due to her HIV status.

“Her doctor encouraged her to look at the illegality of Thompson Institute’s behavior,” Goldfein continued. “Good for the doctor.”

The woman sought legal assistance from the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. The agency contacted Thompson Institute officials and the matter was settled earlier this month, Goldfein said.

“We appreciate that [Thompson officials] immediately recognized the problem,” Goldfein said. “They were completely responsive when they were alerted to the problem. They need to be recognized for that.”

Under the settlement, the school doesn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing in the matter.

Goldfein applauded the efforts of Sarah Schalman-Bergen, a staff attorney at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, who worked on the case.

“This settlement should send a clear message that people living with HIV and AIDS are not a danger in the workplace or the classroom,” Schalman-Bergen said. “The AIDS Law Project applauds the Thompson Institute for their prompt and responsive handling of this matter.”

Goldfein also commended the woman for her strength of character. “She’s continuing her education in her chosen field [at a different school],” Goldfein said.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.