A man in Clarksville, Ind., had spent more than a year volunteering as a reserve police officer when he decided to formally apply to join the force, according to court documents. In October 2015, he received an offer contingent on his passing a state-required medical exam.
Now, the Justice Department is suing the town of Clarksville, alleging discrimination and violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The civil rights law, which was enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in schools and workplaces and protects their access to transportation and public and private places.
“No qualified individual should lose a hard-earned career opportunity because of misguided views about their disability that are not supported by medicine or science,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a Monday statement.
Kevin Baity, the town manager of Clarksville, with a population of about 22,300 across the Ohio River from Louisville, said in a statement to The Washington Post that town leaders are working with federal prosecutors to “find an amicable solution.”
Discrimination against people with HIV — a virus that weakens the immune system and is transmissible through blood, sexual contact, needles and childbirth — became illegal in 2008 as part of an amendment to the ADA.
But police departments have a history of violating the law. In 2012, the city of Atlanta reached a $250,000 settlement with a man who was denied a job because he was HIV positive. New York City paid an HIV-positive man $50,000 in 2017 after he was denied a job with the New York Police Department. In 2020, a former Louisiana police officer won a $90,000 settlement from a sheriff’s office that denied him employment in 2012 after learning he had HIV.
The prospective police officer in Clarksville, who is not identified in the lawsuit, was open about his HIV status, court documents say. During his medical exam on Oct. 26, 2015, the man said he was receiving treatment, and the medical examiner noted that the man “was taking ‘anti-viral medications,’ had ‘no long-term evidence of active disease’ from his HIV, and had no other notable health issues,” the lawsuit says.
Despite those findings, the medical examiner suggested the police chief not hire the man because he did not meet “statewide medical standards,” prosecutors said. The doctor added that the man’s HIV status “posed a significant risk of substantial harm to the health and safety” of other officers and the public, according to the lawsuit.
Prosecutors argue that the medical examiner did not include evidence for those opinions and showed no findings as to how the HIV would impede the man from his work as a police officer.
On Nov. 17, 2015, the police chief recommended that the Clarksville Metropolitan Board of Fire, Police and Safety Commissioners rescind the man’s job offer and remove him from his role as a reserve police officer. The man was notified the next day and told he “did not pass the statewide baseline test” required by the Indiana Public Retirement System, the lawsuit says.
But for the next 15 months, the man worked to get the town to reconsider the disqualification. At one point, someone from the town allegedly acknowledged to the man that he was qualified for the job. He was even added back onto the police department’s hiring list, according to the lawsuit. But the man was never hired, and he eventually secured a job in a different police department, prosecutors said.
“Clarksville’s actions delayed the start of Complainant’s career in law enforcement and caused him significant emotional distress, including humiliation, depression, and anxiety, as well as other monetary and dignitary harms,” the lawsuit says.
The man filed a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Nov. 20, 2015. The case is now being handled by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“Every day, we depend on law enforcement officers who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary A. Myers in the Southern District of Indiana. “Those who are qualified and seek to serve their communities should not be subjected to unlawful discrimination. Individuals living with HIV are entitled to the full protection of our anti-discrimination laws.”