A metro Atlanta juice manufacturer will pay $125,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit after it fired an employee when it discovered he is HIV-positive.
Gregory Packaging, which makes and distributes juices under the trade name Suncup, fired Chanse Cox (photo) in August 2012 after just six months of working on the assembly line of its orange juice facility in Newnan. A co-worker outed him as HIV-positive after seeing an unrelated skin condition so Cox, in an effort to quash the rumors, told a supervisor that he is HIV-positive. A month later, he was fired.
Cox filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which turned into a federal lawsuit in September when the New Jersey-based company refused to settle the case. Lambda Legal's Atlanta office joined the lawsuit in November.
The EEOC announced a settlement in the case on March 13. The company agreed to pay $125,000 – $108,000 to Cox and $17,000 to Lambda Legal for attorney's fee. The consent degree settling the suit includes provisions for equal opportunity training, reporting and postings at the company. That training includes “a relevant discussion of HIV and the ways in which it is and is not transmitted” as well as sensitivity training on how to interact with HIV-positive people.
“The company now acknowledges that the employee's continued employment after he became HIV-positive did not pose a threat to the health or safety of him or others,” Robert Dawkins, regional attorney for the EEOC's Atlanta office, said in a prepared statement. “This is a positive step in eliminating the unjustified fears the ADA was designed to combat.”
The company initially fought the lawsuit, arguing in a December 2014 court filing that it didn't fire the man over his HIV status. But even if it did, the company would have terminated his employment “for legitimate business reasons,” it argued. The company asked for the complaint to be thrown out.
By March, the company relented and agreed to a consent decree. It also admitted that Cox's continued employment after he became HIV-positive did not pose a threat to the health and safety of others or himself. The consent decree also prohibits further employment discrimination by the company, bans any retaliation against Cox and instructs the company to educate its employees about the ADA and HIV.
Lambda Legal said the case sends a strong signal to employers that they can't discriminate against HIV-positive employees.
So why, you might ask, is Lambda Legal, as an impact litigation organization, involved in a case that seems like such a “slam dunk”? Well, for one thing, because companies like this one continue to get it so blatantly wrong, and seem to think they can get away with mistreating their HIV-positive employees based on unfounded fears and ignorance. A big win in court — or a substantial settlement in Chanse’s favor — would send a strong signal to employers that they are not going to get away with this type of discrimination against people living with HIV. And it speaks volumes that the EEOC, which is tasked with ensuring enforcement of the employment antidiscrimination laws through strategic litigation, decided to bring this suit. Lambda Legal is proud to be standing with the EEOC in holding this company’s feet to the fire and getting the message out that discrimination like this will not be tolerated.
Cox could be reached for comment on Friday.
The settlement is the latest in a handful of HIV-discrimination cases in metro Atlanta. In June, Gwinnett College was forced by the U.S. Attorney to change its ways after kicking out an HIV-positive student out of its medical assistant program. In October 2012, the City of Atlanta settled for $250,000 a lawsuit over its rejection of an HIV-positive man who applied to become a police officer.