Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case of Dental Hygienist Fired After HIV-Positive Status Discovered by Employer
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined to hear the case of Spencer Waddell, an HIV-positive man who was fired from his job as a dental hygienist after his employer learned of his disease status, the AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Waddell, who tested positive in 1996, was offered a lower-paying clerical job at Valley Forge Dental Associates in Atlanta after his boss discovered that Waddell had HIV. Waddell refused the demotion and was subsequently fired. In 1999, Waddell sued for discrimination under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell last year dismissed the case, saying that the risk of HIV transmission, although small, was "sufficient" to justify Waddell's demotion. Although there is no documentation of an HIV-positive hygienist ever transmitting the virus to a patient, a Florida dentist in the early 1990s allegedly transmitted the virus to six of his patients. Waddell appealed, and in December, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the dental practice, saying the risk to patients was sufficient grounds for removal.
A Test Case
Observers said that the case could have been used "to further clarify the rights of the disabled" under the ADA. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that people with HIV qualified for protection under the law. However, the law does allow an exception for employers in cases where an employee may pose a "direct threat to others' health and safety." This clause was the article of contention in the case (Gearan, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/29). Waddell's case was supported by several medical associations, including the American Dental Association, which told the court in an amicus brief that "[i]f left uncorrected, the 11th Circuit's decision threatens to undermine the public's confidence in the safety of dental treatment and the nation's health care system." The medical associations hold that the risk of transmitting HIV is not "significant" if proper safety precautions are taken. Waddell's lawyers from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. also asked the Supreme Court to use the case to underscore that an employer "must have objective medical evidence" to claim that an employee poses a health risk to patients. Otherwise, "a host of imaginable disasters could be hypothesized to exclude virtually any individual with a disability," they said. Lawyers for the dental practice said of the dismissal, "The undisputed facts of this case demonstrate that there was a significant risk that (Waddell) would infect his patients with a fatal disease" (Gearan, AP/Newsday, 5/28).