Workplace HIV story takes a twist

Lysol allegations were just the beginning

News Hits has seen its share of odd lawsuits over the years, but one filed in federal court in Detroit just before Christmas strikes us as particularly topsy-turvy.

The case involves a guy named James N. White, a Roseville resident with the extreme misfortune to have contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Adding to White's woes, he claims, is the fact that he contracted HIV several months after getting an office job at Great Expressions, a chain of dental centers that has its headquarters in Bloomfield Hills.

According to published accounts, after White, 26, tested positive for HIV and began requesting time off for doctor visits, his office manager asked what was up.

"I told her I had tested positive for HIV; I thought it would be easier for me in the long run," White told reporter Todd Heywood for a story that appeared in POZ, a print and online publication focusing on issues facing people affected by HIV/AIDS. "I asked her not to tell anyone."

Heywood's story appeared Dec. 8, and has been gaining traction ever since. Part of the reason the story has been getting attention is White's claims of what happened after he disclosed his medical condition to his manager at Great Expressions' Sterling Heights office.

Among other things, White claims that co-workers were informed of his condition, and that after finding out that he was HIV-positive, they began following him around with Lysol, using the disinfectant to clean doorknobs and other surfaces he'd touched.

Great Expressions denies all this, and says that White was eventually fired in April 2009 after seven months of employment because of a "chronic tardiness problem" and frequent missed days.

The decision to fire White, the company says, was based solely on his attendance problems and had absolutely nothing to do with his "disability."

"Great Expressions takes pride in being an equal opportunity employer — not just in adherence to the law, but because we believe it makes us a better company," Todd Gustke, vice president of human resources for Great Expressions, noted in a recent press release. "In order to provide equal employment and advancement opportunities to all individuals, employment decisions at Great Expressions Dental Centers are based on merit, qualifications and abilities. "

The problem for Great Expressions is that its claim that White lost his job because of attendance problems has been deemed to be untrue by the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC).

In 2009, White filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that he was "disciplined, denied reasonable accommodation, and discharged" because he was infected with HIV, and, as a result, the company had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In October 2011, the EEOC issued the results of its investigation, coming down squarely on the side of White, substantiating his claim that Great Expressions "subjected him to discriminatory discipline." The commission also determined that the company's claimed legitimate reason for firing White was "untruthful."

The commission recommended that Great Expressions pay White a total of $224,267, including $27,945 in back wages, $146,040 in compensatory damages, and $45,000 in punitive damages.

The company, though, continued to deny any wrongdoing. Lawyers for White subsequently announced that they planned to take Great Expressions to court. 

After Heywood broke the story in POZ in early December, the blogosphere picked up on the issue. Among those who began drawing attention to White's plight was James Harris, a student at the University of Oklahoma who launched an online petition drive aimed at Great Expressions. 

Attorneys for White say that the online petition attracted the support of 41,000 people in just a few days. The company certainly took quick notice.

On Dec. 21, lawyers for Great Expressions sent Harris a cease and desist letter, accusing him of libel and saying that he was making false and defamatory comments.

"You may conclude that this letter is an attempt to restrict legitimate free speech, but you would be mistaken," Troy attorney Jeffrey D. Wilson explained in his letter to Harris. "Our firm and our client both respect the cherished right of individuals to disseminate accurate and truthful information and make fair comment on the Internet and elsewhere. However, your actions unlawfully infringe on our client's rights to be free from defamatory attacks."

As far as we can tell, even though Harris was mostly repeating info gleaned from Heywood's article, neither the reporter nor POZ received a similar threatening letter accusing them of libel.

"They are just a bunch of bullies," says Joshua Moore, the head of Detroit Legal Services and one of the attorneys representing White.

Which brings us to the topsy-turvy part of all this.

On Dec. 20, the company filed a suit in federal court against White. It is seeking a judgment declaring that it did not discriminate against him or otherwise violate the Americans with Disabilities Act:

"Despite the allegations [White] made to the EEOC, and the continued allegations he makes in media publications, [Great Expressions] did not discriminate against [White] because of his disability, and did not commit the scurrilous allegations appearing in such publications."

Moore, who specializes in handling HIV/AIDS-related cases, describes the company's lawsuit as a highly unusual pre-emptory move.

"To me, because of all the publicity around this case, they are trying to stop the bleeding, if you will," Moore tells News Hits." 

We asked Moore if he could put us in contact with his client, but we're told that White, who previously said that he sought mental health care because of the stress caused by his firing, is going through a particularly difficult time right now and was declining interviews.

His attorney, however, is happy to speak for him.

"We find the actions of Great Expressions Dental Care to be truly despicable," Moore says. "We will continue to pursue justice for Mr. White for the unconscionable trauma he has suffered."

Great Expressions' attorney, Wilson, did not return a call and e-mail seeking further comment. 

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