Human Rights Group Launches Investigation of Alleged Discrimination by Cirque du Soleil Against HIV-Positive Gymnast
The San Francisco Human Rights Commission on Friday opened an investigation against Cirque du Soleil based on allegations that the company discriminated against gymnast Matthew Cusick because of his HIV-positive status, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Hua, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/22). Cusick said that he disclosed his HIV-positive status to Cirque shortly after his July 2002 hiring and underwent several medical evaluations and was found to be in good health and considered fully able to perform with the company. However, shortly before he was to begin performing in the company's Las Vegas show "Mystere," Cirque sent him a letter terminating his employment and stating that his HIV-positive status "will likely pose a direct threat of harm to others, particularly in the case of future injury." In July, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Montreal-based Cirque on Cusick's behalf. Hayley Gorenberg, Cusick's attorney, said that Cusick was denied the job "not because of sound science or rational concern for other employees but because of unfounded fear." Cusick is considering seeking reinstatement of his contract and damages, and he also wants Cirque to educate the public and the company about discrimination against HIV-positive people. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people living with HIV, but an employer's obligation to a disabled employee is limited if an employee "poses a risk to himself or to coworkers," according to labor lawyers (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/21). Cirque has other employees who are HIV-positive, but they work in roles that the company believes are safe for other workers and spectators, Cirque spokesperson Renee Claude Menard said. The role Cusick was to fill is considered "risky," Menard added.
Larry Brinkin, a senior contract compliance officer at the Human Rights Commission, said that because Cirque leases property owned by the Port of San Francisco, it is subject to city codes prohibiting job discrimination based on HIV status. Violating such codes can bring fines, termination of contract or disbarment from a city contract for up to three years, Brinkin said. The commission has asked Cirque for documents written by medical authorities that recommend not hiring HIV-positive people and copies of precautions taken by the company's workers to prevent transmission of communicable diseases. Further, the commission is looking into how Cirque is aware of the HIV status of its workers. Cirque has until Dec. 2 to respond to the inquiry in writing, and if the commission believes discrimination against actual or potential employees based on HIV-positive status occured, it will recommend that the Port of San Francisco impose sanctions on Cirque (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/22).