A Louisiana man has filed a federal lawsuit against the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office (IPSO) for allegedly discriminating against him in 2012. According to the complaint, filed last week by Lambda Legal, IPSO was prepared to hire Liam Pierce as a deputy sheriff, but allegedly opted not to after learning that Pierce has HIV.
“It was like a punch to the gut,” Pierce, 46, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “It really frustrated me that for all the wonderful things that are here in Louisiana and all the wonderful people we have, we still have people that are not appropriately educated with HIV, how it’s transmitted, what the risks are, and what isn’t risky.”
As the complaint recounts, two days after Pierce had his in-person interview with IPSO in March, 2012, Captain Rickey Boudreaux told him that was going to be hired by the department, pending a medical examination. That examination, completed two weeks later, found that Pierce indicated “no significant abnormalities or medical findings,” with all physical findings “within normal limits.” But it did state that he is HIV-positive. Two days after submitting the medical examination, Pierce received a letter from IPSO indicating that he would not be hired.
“It’s clear on the medical evaluation: The only thing negative was the HIV status,” Pierce said, adding that a friend’s contact at the department relayed to him that he wasn’t hired because he failed the medical. He immediately knew it was because of his HIV status. “Anybody with a simple amount of education is able to see right and wrong and this is plainly wrong. It’s no different than discriminating against somebody because they have diabetes or because they have cancer. You can’t discriminate against that. It’s wrong.”
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Justice has resources dedicated specifically to educating the public about how discrimination on the basis of HIV status is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Pierce has a long history of service to others. He’s been an EMT, a paramedic, a firefighter, and a police officer. It was actually Hurricane Katrina that brought him to Louisiana in the first place; he ditched his old job after securing authorization to join the first-responder recovery efforts. He was hired full-time shortly thereafter by a local agency. To this day, he still teaches various public safety courses, including firearm safety, first aid, CPR, and — ironically — blood-born pathogens. His enthusiasm for helping others even convinced his husband to take an interest in firearm safety and they now teach the classes together.
After his HIV diagnosis in 2003, Pierce said, “I actually spent my days and nights reading everything I could”; he even began doing HIV education, including services specifically intended to help others who have just learned of their own HIV diagnoses.
“When you’re first diagnosed, a lot of people feel it’s the end of the world, and you quickly realize it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “It’s a condition, like any other condition, that requires medication, medical care, and also self-care.”
Because of his role in medical education, Pierce is particularly attuned to people’s misconceptions about HIV. When he first disclosed his status to people, he remembered many were afraid even if he’d cough or sneeze. The biggest misconception he’s encountered is that many people don’t understand the difference between HIV and AIDS.
“People think that once you have AIDS you always have AIDS, and that’s not the case anymore. I’ve known people who have had a CD4 count of two and have come back because they changed their lifestyle; they started taking care of themselves,” he said. “People don’t understand that the two are very different.” (A CD4 count refers to white blood cells and the health of a person’s immune system; an uncompromised immune system has a CD4 count of 500 or higher.)
With this lawsuit, Pierce recognizes that he now has an even bigger platform with which to help others better understand the virus; specifically, he said he hopes more people embrace a “willingness to empathize” with people living with HIV. “We don’t need people to feel sorry for us, we don’t need people to treat us any different, but understand the facts and not just the rumors,” he said.
He added that he’s had reservations about the lawsuit, recognizing that it could open him up to future discrimination, but he still believes it’s the right thing to do.
“I’ve always been very private about my HIV status,” he said. “I’ve always tried to make it the smallest part of my life. By standing up, I might be able to help others. And by standing up, I might be able to change the way things are done here in Louisiana and maybe give someone else an opportunity to not have to go through what I went through.”
IPSO told ThinkProgress that it does not comment on pending litigation.