ATLANTA – A former investigator with the city of Los Angeles claims Atlanta police rejected his job application solely because he has HIV, a decision he said breaks the law and perpetuates stereotypes about people with the virus.
Atlanta police argue hiring the man poses a threat to the health and safety of the public, setting up a legal fight that is being followed closely by gay rights groups and police agencies.
A federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Wednesday, and judges will have the chance to pepper both sides with questions.
"It's shocking and frustrating and very saddening that in 2012 this is still going on," said the 40-year-old man who sued the city of Atlanta in 2010 under the pseudonym Richard Roe. "People are living with HIV and, for the most part, they are living normal lives and productive lives."
Roe spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he believes his medical condition could prevent him from other job opportunities.
Roe's anonymous lawsuit mirrors a battle that has largely been waged quietly, without high-profile protests or marches. Several similar lawsuits have been dismissed by judges who sided with the police departments, or the cases were settled out of court, the agreements kept confidential.
A lower judge sided with the city of Atlanta in November 2010 and threw out the lawsuit, ruling that Roe failed to prove he didn't pose a "direct threat" to the health and safety of others. Roe appealed the decision.
Atlanta attorneys said in court documents Roe didn't disclose his condition and warned he couldn't perform "essential functions" of an officer. The police department and city officials have refused to comment beyond court filings.
Roe said he was a criminal investigator with the city of Los Angeles, though he did not work with the police department. He discovered he had HIV in 1997 but said it didn't hinder his ability to perform his duties. He said his infection never came up with the city.
He moved to Atlanta to find a better job, and in January 2006 began the lengthy process to join the city's police force. He passed a written test, a psychological exam, computerized voice stress analysis and a background check. The roadblock came after a blood test during a physical revealed he had the virus that causes AIDS, his lawsuit said. The doctor did not do any further tests.
Roe said the physician, Dr. Alton Greene, told him Atlanta police had a policy of refusing to hire officers with the virus. Roe said the doctor's statement violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he said prevents employers from dismissing anyone because they have HIV.
The city said they do not systematically reject job applicants because of HIV, but instead they look at each individual on a case-by-case basis.
In Roe's case, the city said, the doctor recommended that he have "no physical contact or involvement with individuals."
Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, said the Roe case centers on the "belief that, 30 years into the epidemic, HIV is easily transmitted and results in a death sentence when it is transmitted."
"And neither of those are remotely close to the truth," she said.
Nurses, paramedics and other first responders with HIV have faced similar challenges over the years by employers, said Hanssens, but she said legal fights in those professions don't often surface much anymore because decades of litigation and medical research shows those with HIV can work in higher-risk fields.
Scott Schoettes of Lambda Legal, the gay rights group that represents Roe, said the city will not be able to show that someone with HIV presents a public threat.
"And maybe other departments will realize that they should create a policy that explicitly says HIV should not disqualify you from getting a job," he said.
Police departments often don't have a policy about whether to hire an officer with HIV, and those that do are loath to advertise the decision to protect the privacy of their officers.
Darrel Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said his group has no guidelines for members on how to treat applicants with HIV. The Fraternal Order of Police also doesn't have a policy, but president Chuck Canterbury said his group argues that officers with the virus should be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Roe, who is in school studying criminal justice, said he's waging the legal battle because he wants to serve the city.
"Because of my desire to serve my community, I wouldn't want to be anywhere but out in the public," he said. "Making the streets safer for the underdog is one of the most rewarding things I can do."
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