Medical Weight Loss Clinic Learns that HIV is a Disability Under the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects persons with HIV/AIDS.  And that’s been the case for at least 15 years. (See the DOJ’s Informal Discussion Ltr. on HIV Discrimination and the ADA, dated March 2,1993).  But maybe no one told this to the Medical Weight Loss Clinic, which, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), refused service to a prospective client because she is HIV positive.  The Medical Weight Loss Clinic had to find this out the hard way after the DOJ filed suit on behalf of the potential patient, alleging the Illinois-based business failed to comply with its obligations to provide equal access to public accommodations.

Although we deal with the ADA mostly in the employment context, it’s implications are much broader reaching.  The ADA guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public
accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications.  Although the EEOC has administrative authority over disability claims in employment, the DOJ handles cases like this, where the claim involves discriminatory denial of public accommodations.

As the DOJ’s 1993 letter (above) explains, gymnasiums, health spas, and other places of recreation are all public accommodations and, therefore, required to provide equal access to persons with disabilities.  The exception to this requirement is when an individual poses a direct threat to others.  But the direct-threat conclusion cannot be reached by relying on generalizations or stereotypes–that would be discrimination–the same kind the ADA is designed to prevent.  Instead, such a conclusion must rely on current medical evidence.  A person with HIV or AIDS does not pose a serious risk of exposure through casual contact.

As part of the settlement, the Medical Weight Loss Clinic will be provided to provide training on nondiscriminatory practices.  Maybe it should also consider providing its personnel with access to modern medical data on HIV and other traditionally stigmatized conditions to help prevent unfounded biases from leading to future litigation against the company.

For additional information, see:

The Delaware Employment Law Blog’s HR Summer School: ADA 101, and ADA 102

A comprehensive Q & A bulletin on HIV/AIDS as a protected class under the ADA is available at the website.