Earlier this summer, GLMA submitted a friend-of-the-court brief presenting information about advancements in medical treatment of HIV in support of a lawsuit filed by an Atlanta police department candidate who was denied employment because of his HIV status.
The applicant, who is being represented by Lambda Legal, is appealing a federal trial court decision granting summary judgment to the Atlanta Police Department. The lawsuit claims the department refused to hire the applicant as a police officer because he is HIV positive, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act. Lambda Legal completed filing briefs in this appeal before the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
In lower court, the Atlanta Police Department justified its decision by contending that the applicant could not show he was qualified to perform the job, because it believed that a police officer with HIV presents a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others. When assessing whether an infectious disease presents a “direct threat” to others (i.e., presents a significant risk of harm), earlier 11th Circuit cases have stated that—though the chances of transmission may be extremely low—because an HIV diagnosis “inevitably entails death,” the “direct threat” standard had been met.
GLMA’s brief argues that given the current state of medical knowledge about HIV, the 11th Circuit should change its analysis of the “direct threat” standard. The brief details that, even as HIV prevention remains a top priority, HIV today is characterized as a chronic, treatable disease. Medical advancements in antiretroviral drugs have dramatically extended life expectancy for people living with HIV and the quality of life of those living with HIV has dramatically improved. Because of these advances in the treatment and understanding of HIV, GLMA’s brief argues that the court should no longer consider HIV as “inevitably entail[ing] death.”
The brief further explains that the scientific and medical communities know much more now about the risk of HIV transmission than they did 10-plus years ago, when the 11th Circuit ruled on previous HIV discrimination cases. The risk of transmission of HIV in the line of police duty is negligible, especially given the reduced viral load of a person who is on antiretroviral drugs. Consistent with this evidence, other police forces and courts have found no reason not to allow police officers living with HIV to serve in law enforcement.
GLMA extends a special thank you and recognition to the law firm Latham & Watkins, which generously provided its services pro bono in authoring the brief and serving as GLMA’s counsel.