A 35-year-old patent draftsman from Alexandria has become the first person with AIDS to sue a Washington area employer, claiming he was discharged after 12 years of work because he has the fatal disease.

In a lawsuit filed yesterday in Alexandria Circuit Court, Richard Goodfellow became one of the nation's first plaintiffs in an emerging area of civil rights and labor law, as workers with AIDS claim they are able-bodied, but are being dismissed from their jobs.

Throughout the country, individual employers, trade associations and AIDS support groups are grappling with the new problem of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the work place.

"The handful of cases that have reached the courts are the tip of the iceberg," said Arthur Leonard, a New York University law professor specializing in labor law and human rights. "Most people are either too sick to fight or don't want others to know they have AIDS."

Goodfellow maintains that Virginia's eight-month-old law prohibiting discrimination against the disabled protects him from dismissal by Quinn Patent Drawing Service Inc., an Alexandria firm that duplicates drawings of patent items. Its president, James Quinn, said he would have no comment on the suit or the circumstances that prompted it.

"I'm not a danger to anyone," said Goodfellow, who began working as a graphic artist for the firm shortly after his Army service during the Vietnam War. "But they said for the benefit of all I should not return to my job."

Goodfellow learned he had AIDS in August while being treated for pneumonia at George Washington University Medical Center. "I broke down, crying on the telephone, and told them I had AIDS," he said of his employer. "He told me to get better and they would continue to pay me."

However, when Goodfellow returned to work after his discharge from the hospital, he was told that "they were concerned I would pass something else like TB to other people," Goodfellow related. "I was told they'd pay for one week's vacation and [I] would get my paychecks from when I was in the hospital. Then I was taken off the payroll."

While packing up his drafting table and drawing equipment, Goodfellow said several of the firm's 20 employes expressed sympathy to him.

"These are my friends, the people I ate lunch with for years," Goodfellow related softly, and with difficulty. "I've been encouraged to keep working and I want to be there. Your job gives you controls, a routine and security. It's been my life."

Goodfellow said he now must pay for his own health insurance and his savings have dwindled. "I'm going to try to look for other work, but I feel as if I have a right to my job."

Mauro Montoya, legal services coordinator at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the area's AIDS service center, said the clinic has records of 26 Virginia and District residents with AIDS who have been dismissed from their jobs in recent months. None has resulted in legal action.

"We've been able to settle a fair number and put people back in the work place or on salary," said clinic director Jim Graham, who said those fired included computer operators, hairdressers, waiters, hotel workers, a physician, a teacher and clerical workers.

Several trade groups representing those workers, such as the National Restaurant Association, have advised their members that there is no public health or other reason to discharge an employe with AIDS.

"Once employers are told that the federal guidelines show there is no risk of transmission in offices, factories and that the D.C. Human Rights law prohibits discrimination, they're interested in negotiating," Graham said.

The District, Virginia and Maryland are among 42 states that prohibit discrimination against the disabled in the same way that a 1973 federal law applies to federal contractors and programs. Most disabled citizens in the remaining states are covered by executive orders, Leonard said.

Preliminary rulings by human rights agencies in Florida, New York and California have allowed AIDS job discrimination cases to be brought under state disability laws.

Ken Labowitz, Goodfellow's attorney, said that although his client is not disabled, "It's the perception by the employer that he's disabled that's important."

Goodfellow said he believes fear prompted his dismissal. "My whole generation is afraid," he said. "But AIDS is like cancer was in the generation before. It is an illness of this time and should be understood."