ACLU sues State Dept. over HIV case

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit late last month against the Department of State and one of its contracting companies for their treatment of an HIV-positive employee.

The ACLU is arguing that the department and the contractor, security company Triple Canopy, violated the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act when they terminated the man, who is going by the name John Doe because of his HIV status. Triple Canopy filed a motion to dismiss the case Jan. 9 and argued that it rescinded Doe’s employment offer because of a State Department policy.

Neither the State Department nor Triple Canopy could be reached for comment.

In October 2005, Triple Canopy offered Doe, a 20-year Special Forces veteran, a position providing security at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti. The day before he was to graduate from the training program the following month, however, a Triple Canopy director told him he was not eligible for the position because the contract between the company and the State Department stipulates that overseas workers cannot be HIV-positive.

Triple Canopy’s legal motion argues that the State Department’s “Worldwide Personal Protective Services Contract,” which it is required to utilize to determine eligible security contractors, stipulates that all personnel have a “valid negative HIV result” and also sets out “suggested physical standards,” one of which is that employees must be “free from communicable disease.”

Rose Saxe, an attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV/AIDS divisions, said Doe was diagnosed with HIV in 2000 and had the disease under control.

“His doctors said he could deploy; he was healthy and absolutely fine,” Saxe said. “We’re trying now to figure out the reasoning behind this policy in the contract.”

Shortly after his termination with Triple Canopy, Doe filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigated the situation and issued a Right to Sue letter, stating that there was “reasonable cause” to believe the State Department and Triple Canopy acted illegally in denying Doe employment.

Saxe explained that the ACLU is arguing that Doe’s rights were violated according to both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA because the first law bans discrimination against those with physical or mental disabilities in federal agencies, while the latter prohibits such discrimination in private companies; HIV/AIDS is included as a potential disability under both laws.

Saxe said that despite increased education about the disease, many employers, including the federal government, continue to exhibit a lack of understanding about HIV.

“It is bad enough that people with HIV continue to face discrimination because of fear and lack of understanding about how HIV is transmitted,” Saxe said. “But it is especially troublesome when a government contract is at the root of that discrimination. We need the courts to make it clear to the government and its contractors that they cannot discriminate against qualified people because they have HIV.”

This is not the first time the State Department and other federal agencies have employed questionable HIV policies, according to Saxe.

“We’ve heard about this type of thing with other government agencies having similar contract requirements, so this is not a new thing,” she said. “And the State Department in particular is the same department that was sued for refusing to let people with HIV join the Foreign Service and for discharging HIV-positive people from the Peace Corps. This is not the first instance of HIV discrimination within this department.”

Doe has since found employment as a construction worker, although the pay is much lower than what he would have earned at the Triple Canopy job.

“After putting my life on the line for my country for more than 20 years, I can’t believe my government is saying that I’m unworthy to work because I have HIV,” Doe said in a statement. “I need this job to support my family. I’m in good health, well qualified and eager to serve.”

The suit does not call for a specific monetary compensation, and Saxe said that while Doe would like to be compensated for the time he could have been working in the Triple Canopy position, he’s more concerned about eliminating the State Department’s policy.

“He wants the policy changed. He wants an opportunity to serve his country.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].