Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which sits gracefully on the west bank ofthe Mississippi River, may soon be known as one of the places where thestill-teething Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came into its own.Passed in 1990, courts have ruled that the ADA's protection againstdiscrimination applies to HIV and AIDS. But that was the furthest thingfrom transplanted New Yorker Sandra Flowers' mind when she wasdismissed from her job as a medical assistant at Southern RegionalPhysician Services, a doctors' association affiliated with a largeBaton Rouge hospital.
Flowers' ordeal began in 1994, when a friend and colleague she hadconfided in disclosed her HIV status to their human resources managerover drinks, she says. Staffers at Southern Regional proceeded to makeFlowers' life a living hell -- eavesdropping on conversations, refusingto shake her hand and ceasing to socialize with her. Although she had aglowing performance review in 1994, a write-up in 1995 cited her "lousyattitude."
After leaving, Flowers says that every time she applied for a newjob, Southern Regional officials would deny that she ever worked there,jettisoning her chances. The company also resisted paying its share ofher 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. InDecember 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, thefirst time that a court at that level had, as the decision read,"affirmatively acknowledged that a cause for disability-basedharassment exists under the ADA." For employers around the country,Flowers' victory was a wake-up call declaring that people with HIV wereentitled to equal protection against bigotry and ignorance in theworkplace.
Although her five-year legal odyssey came to an apparentlysuccessful end last year, Flowers, who says she's been in debt "up toher ears," has reaped few material benefits. The appeals court, whileupholding the earlier court's decision, threw out the money award,stating that there was no "evidence of actual injury" to Flowers. LastNovember, she and her lawyers filed a civil suit against SouthernRegional's much bigger parent company, Our Lady of the Lake MedicalCenter.
In the meantime, Flowers, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1989,remains upbeat. She has started a new job with a medical billingcompany, her health is decent and she has been able to achieve herdream of seeing her kids grow up to be young adults she's proud of. "Myoldest [Angela, now 21 and a hairdresser in Hawaii] wanted to move fora 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 tome. I told her, 'You've got to live your own life.'" Flowers' otherdaughter, 18-year-old Michelle, recently joined the Air Force.
Now, Flowers looks back with a sense of vindication on her painfullast days at Southern Regional. "My pink slip actually said I was abitch," she recalls.
Well, as they say, the "bitch" is back.