Cirque du Soleil Agrees To Pay $600,000 to HIV-Positive Gymnast Fired Because of Perceived Threat to Others
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Thursday announced that Cirque du Soleil has agreed to pay $600,000 to a gymnast who was fired because of his HIV-positive status, the Los Angeles Times reports (Romney, Los Angeles Times, 4/23). Matthew Cusick said that after disclosing his HIV-positive status to Cirque shortly after his July 2002 hiring, he 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 2003, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal discrimination complaint with the EEOC against Cirque on Cusick's behalf (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/2). Under the settlement, which is one of the largest made public for an HIV discrimination case mediated by EEOC, Cirque agreed to pay Cusick $600,000 and provide anti-discrimination training to all of its employees, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Marech, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/23). The $600,000 settlement includes $300,000 in compensatory damages, $60,000 in back pay for a year of lost wages, $200,000 in future wages and $40,000 in attorneys' fees. The settlement, which is the maximum allowed for a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, also mandates that the company keep its records open to EEOC for two years (Los Angeles Times, 4/23). The company also must adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy toward discrimination (Cernetig, Toronto Star, 4/23).
The San Francisco Human Rights Commission had opened its own investigation into the company but dropped the complaint in February after the company conceded that the chances of a performer transmitting HIV during a show were "infinitesimal," according to the Chronicle (San Francisco Chronicle, 4/23). The commission then helped Cirque revise its nondiscrimination policy to include HIV-positive employees. Cirque spokesperson Renee-Claude Menard said that the company also has hired a consultant to educate its 2,700 employees at sites worldwide (Los Angeles Times, 4/23).
"This is a huge victory for working people with HIV because it tells employers that there's a steep price to pay for HIV discrimination," Lambda Legal AIDS Project Director Hayley Gorenberg, who was the lead attorney on the case, said (Agence France-Presse, 4/22). The settlement is the "finale to a very long and painful process," Menard said, adding, "We made a mistake, but I don't think we have a pattern of being discriminatory" (Reuters, 4/22). Menard added, "We've put in place a lot of elements to make sure we keep learning about HIV and also bloodborne pathogens." Cusick said, "It's a victory for not only me but everybody who is HIV-positive, to know that they have rights and that people will help them stand up ... to fight these injustices" (Los Angeles Times, 4/23). "A key component of HIV prevention is the ability of people to disclose their HIV status as negative or positive," Jason Riggs of Stop AIDS Project said, adding, "The fact that [Cusick] was able to fight against discrimination is a key victory not only in employment, but also in HIV prevention" (San Francisco Chronicle, 4/23).