Photo: Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, via Facebook.
A federal court will hear a lawsuit against a Louisiana sheriff who is accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act after he allegedly rescinded a job offer to a man who applied to be a sheriff’s deputy after learning the applicant was HIV-positive.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Juneau, of the Western District of Louisiana, heard motions earlier this month regarding whether William “Liam” Pierce had a right to sue the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office for violating the ADA, which, among other things, is supposed to protect HIV-positive people from being wrongfully terminated.
Pierce, a former paramedic, volunteer firefighter, and police officer with significant experience as a first responder during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, claims that Sheriff Louis Ackal and others in the sheriff’s office discriminated against him in 2012 when they offered him a job as a sheriff’s deputy, only to rescind the offer after Pierce underwent a pre-employment medical exam.
During the exam, Pierce revealed he was HIV-positive. But the medical examiners said he could safely perform his job duties without posing any risk to others. However, following the medical exam, Pierce said he received a letter informing him the office was taking back its job offer.
In a statement, Pierce called the office’s decision to rescind the job offer “a punch to the gut,” adding that he felt “devastated” after seeing his chance to continue working in law enforcement slip away.
According to Lafayette-area ABC affiliate KATC, Ackal and the sheriff’s office claim the reason they did not hire Pierce was due to an incident that occurred when Pierce worked for the Abbeville (La.) Police Department, in which he was terminated for discharging his firearm while he had two prisoners in custody.
But Pierce disputes that notion, contending that the office knew about the incident (as he had already submitted to a background check and been interviewed for the position) and made him a job offer, regardless — at least until they learned he was HIV-positive.
“I knew that my HIV status has no impact on my ability to do the job. It’s not right that good, hardworking people are turned away from jobs they are qualified to do just because of sheer ignorance,” Pierce said in a statement. “My hope is that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else and that the Iberia Parish Sheriff learns about HIV and understands that it does not disqualify me from doing this job or any other.”
Pierce filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that the sheriff’s office had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The EEOC investigated Pierce’s claim, and, in 2016, issued a decision finding that there was probably cause to believe that the sheriff’s office had indeed discriminated against him.
Lambda Legal, which is representing Pierce, filed a motion urging Juneau to find that Ackal and his office violated the ADA through their actions. Juneau denied the motion, saying he would not rule yet because Ackal had not yet been deposed and some facts remain in dispute.
But Juneau expressed skepticism about whether Ackal would be able to prove his office did not violate the law. The case will now proceed to trial, which has been scheduled for Jan. 6, 2020.
As part of the lawsuit, Lambda Legal has asked that Pierce be reinstated as a deputy and awarded lost wages, bonuses, benefits and other compensation he would have been entitled to as a deputy, as well as damages for emotional pain and suffering and legal costs.
The lawsuit also asks the court to prevent the sheriff’s office from taking similar actions against other HIV-positive individuals and adopt an equal employment policy that protects people living with HIV from discrimination.
“After a background check and series of interviews, the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office offered Liam a job contingent solely on a medical evaluation,” Scott Schoettes, legal counsel and the HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “And really, why wouldn’t they? Liam’s experience in health and public safety work made him a very strong candidate. But then, after the medical evaluation that informed the Sheriff of Liam’s HIV status, the job offer was immediately rescinded.
“It is illegal to send an applicant for a medical evaluation before that person has cleared all the other hurdles in the application process, and it is illegal to refuse to employ someone based on their HIV status,” Schoettes added. “No matter how they try to justify the conduct, the Iberia Parish Sheriff withdrew the job offer directly after learning of Liam’s HIV status, and that’s illegal discrimination plain and simple. We look forward to making that case in court.”
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