Seeking Justice with a softer touch

Image of a red stamp that reads, "Case Closed"

Getting justice for a client doesn’t have to mean filing a lawsuit and fighting it out in court. A recent case provides an example of what AIDS Law Project Staff Attorney Adrian M. Lowe calls preventative lawyering.

The AIDS Law Project recently helped a woman whose life was in turmoil when she contacted us. Her husband had become seriously ill and was admitted to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with AIDS. Soon after, she tested HIV positive. The woman had worked for a small, family-owned business for two decades. She loved her job and considered her boss a major source of support, so she shared her diagnosis.

Although initially supportive, that soon changed. A few days after her disclosure, her boss told her she would have to tell all the other employees about her diagnosis for insurance liability reasons. If she didn’t, he said, he would fire her. She didn’t want to tell her coworkers – at that point she had only told two close friends. But she also didn’t want to antagonize her employer or lose her job.

Her doctor referred her to the AIDS Law Project, where she spoke with Lowe and Executive Director Ronda B. Goldfein.

“She felt cornered,” Adrian said. “Everything was piling up against her.”

Ronda and Adrian reassured her that there was no legal obligation to disclose, and that she could take legal action if she was fired because of her HIV. With their client clear on her legal rights, the three strategized about how to maintain her right to privacy while avoiding a confrontation with her boss.

Clearly, her boss needed to be educated about how universal precautions prevent a risk of transmission in the workplace. They decided that message was better coming from a doctor, rather than getting an intimidating call from a lawyer. The woman asked her boss to contact her doctor, which he did. After learning about the facts about HIV, her boss said she did not have to inform her coworkers. Instead, he organized an all-staff training on workplace safety, including universal precautions. The training did not single out the woman or HIV in any way.

“We’re always happy to get a good outcome without subjecting the client to the trauma of litigation,” Ronda said. “Contrary to what you see on television, lawsuits aren’t fun for anyone.”