NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana man says a sheriff's office withdrew a job offer after finding out he has HIV, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
"It's the equivalent of not hiring somebody because they had cancer or diabetes. It's not the 1980s any more. We don't have to be afraid," William "Liam" Pierce said in a telephone interview.
He said he was told in 2012 that he'd be hired as an Iberia Parish sheriff's deputy, subject to a medical examination. The offer was rescinded after the exam found he is healthy but has human immunodeficiency virus, the suit said.
"It was a punch in the gut ... ," Pierce said. "It was a done deal until they found out I was HIV positive. That was devastating."
"It's the equivalent of not hiring somebody because they had cancer or diabetes. It's not the 1980s any more. We don't have to be afraid."
William "Liam" Pierce
He said he's known that he has the virus that can cause AIDS since 2003 but is "extremely healthy," taking his medication and regularly following up with his doctor.
The lawsuit said the virus doesn't create significant risk for Pierce or anyone he encounters as a police officer and the Americans with Disabilities Act protects him from discrimination. Lambda Legal, a national group that focuses on the civil rights of LGBTQ and HIV-positive people, filed the suit against Sheriff Louis Ackal and Capts. Ryan Turner and Rickey J. Boudreaux in federal court in Lafayette.
"We do not make comments on pending cases," said Maj. Wendell Rayborn, spokesman for the sheriff's office in New Iberia, about 105 miles (170 kilometers) west of New Orleans.
Pierce was a paramedic, an EMS instructor and an instructor about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in the Cleveland area, according to the lawsuit. He came to New Orleans as a volunteer paramedic after Hurricane Katrina and now lives in Venice, near the state's ragged southeastern tip. Starting in 2008, he worked as a police officer at two departments within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of New Iberia.
He said he took the case to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which included mediation with the sheriff's office, but "they weren't interested in resolving it."
The EEOC took several years on the case, but in February 2016 found that the sheriff's office probably had violated the law. On July 26, the U.S. Department of Justice sent Pierce a letter saying he had a right to sue, and 90 days in which to do so.
"The thing that makes the case appealing from my point of view is the facts are very simple," said Ken Upton, a Lambda Legal attorney in Dallas. "He applied for a job, folks liked him, he was well-recommended. He applied for a physical; it came back perfectly normal except he was HIV-positive. After that, they withdrew the offer, which was a clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Pierce said he stayed in Louisiana because he loves the people.
"Unfortunately," he said, "education and knowledge of the HIV virus is not high up there on the wonderful things of Louisiana. ... That's one of the reasons Louisiana has a high infection rate — because of the lack of understanding."