Federal Appeals Court Rules HIV-Positive Dental Hygienist Poses Risk to Patients, Upholds Job Termination
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta last month upheld a U.S. District Court ruling that found Spencer Waddell, an HIV-positive dental hygienist, posed a "significant risk" to patients and that the Atlanta-based Valley Forge Dental Associates was justified in terminating his employment, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Stanley Birch said that although expert witnesses said that the risk of HIV transmission was low, none denied that it "theoretically could happen, even though ... such an event never before has occurred." Therefore, "Waddell, because he is infected with the fatal, contagious disease of HIV, is a direct threat to his work place," Birch concluded. Waddell filed suit in 1999 against his former employer, charging that they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when, upon learning of his HIV status, they fired him after he rejected an offered clerical job at half his former salary. U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell dismissed the case last year, siding with Valley Forge. Stephen Scarborough, Waddell's attorney from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., said he is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "Spencer is a highly qualified hygienist who is diligent about using gloves, barriers and other precautions. Because of that diligence and because of his skill, as well as the general difficulty of transmitting HIV in the dental office, it's clear that he can practice safely," Scarborough said, adding that they were "very disappointed" with the ruling. There are no known cases of a dental hygienist spreading HIV, and the only known cases of HIV transmission through dental work are those linked to an HIV-positive Florida dentist suspected of infecting six patients in the early 1990s (Rankin, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/4).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.