Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which sits gracefully on the west bank of
the Mississippi River, may soon be known as one of the places where the
still-teething Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came into its own.
Passed in 1990, courts have ruled that the ADA's protection against
discrimination applies to HIV and AIDS. But that was the furthest thing
from transplanted New Yorker Sandra Flowers' mind when she was
dismissed from her job as a medical assistant at Southern Regional
Physician Services, a doctors' association affiliated with a large
Baton Rouge hospital.
Flowers' ordeal began in 1994, when a friend and colleague she had
confided in disclosed her HIV status to their human resources manager
over drinks, she says. Staffers at Southern Regional proceeded to make
Flowers' life a living hell -- eavesdropping on conversations, refusing
to shake her hand and ceasing to socialize with her. Although she had a
glowing performance review in 1994, a write-up in 1995 cited her "lousy
After leaving, Flowers says that every time she applied for a new
job, Southern Regional officials would deny that she ever worked there,
jettisoning her chances. The company also resisted paying its share of
her unemployment benefits. "They fought me all the way," Flowers says.
"They truly believed I would go away quietly."
Fed up and still unemployed, Flowers filed suit in federal court. In
December 1998, a local jury ruled in her favor and awarded her
$350,000, an amount the trial judge then reduced to $100,000. The U.S.
Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that verdict in March 2001, the
first time that a court at that level had, as the decision read,
"affirmatively acknowledged that a cause for disability-based
harassment exists under the ADA." For employers around the country,
Flowers' victory was a wake-up call declaring that people with HIV were
entitled to equal protection against bigotry and ignorance in the
Although her five-year legal odyssey came to an apparently
successful end last year, Flowers, who says she's been in debt "up to
her ears," has reaped few material benefits. The appeals court, while
upholding the earlier court's decision, threw out the money award,
stating that there was no "evidence of actual injury" to Flowers. Last
November, she and her lawyers filed a civil suit against Southern
Regional's much bigger parent company, Our Lady of the Lake Medical
In the meantime, Flowers, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1989,
remains upbeat. She has started a new job with a medical billing
company, her health is decent and she has been able to achieve her
dream of seeing her kids grow up to be young adults she's proud of. "My
oldest [Angela, now 21 and a hairdresser in Hawaii] wanted to move for
a long time but was afraid to because she thought I was going to die.
It took a long time to convince her that nothing's going to happen to
me. I told her, 'You've got to live your own life.'" Flowers' other
daughter, 18-year-old Michelle, recently joined the Air Force.
Now, Flowers looks back with a sense of vindication on her painful
last days at Southern Regional. "My pink slip actually said I was a
bitch," she recalls.
Well, as they say, the "bitch" is back.