Doe v. Charlotte and the HHS Office of Civil Rights: Developing a Federal Policy on AIDS and Disability, 1984–86

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 11:10 AM
Regent Room (New York Hilton)
Nancy Brown, Purdue University
In the spring of 1984, a hospital in North Carolina placed a male nurse on unpaid leave after a hospital physician determined he had AIDS. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint that the hospital had violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which protected the rights of people with disabilities with the Office of Civil Rights. The precedent setting case was the first to test if Section 504 covered people with AIDS. This paper investigates the little-known case as a window into the civil rights climate for people with AIDS in the critical period of the mid-1980s when fear of AIDS mobilized communities against school children and support for mandatory testing and even quarantine circulated in the public and political spheres. The case provides an example of how the culture battles in the 1980s shaped policy decisions during the Reagan Administration. Some policy makers supported denying civil rights protection to a vulnerable group with an incapacitating disease for fear it might be used as a stepping stone to gay rights. While the Office of Civil Rights delayed a decision for over two years, Lambda worked with other gay rights organizations to apply political pressure in an attempt to force the Office to develop a policy on Section 504 and AIDS. The case would intersect with a controversial legal opinion from the Department of Justice countenancing discrimination due to fear of contagion and the Supreme Court’s Nassau v. Arline decision on contagious disease. It also shifts the timeline of the successful battle to include people with AIDS under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) earlier than more well-known antecedents such as the contagious disease amendment to Section 504 added by the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988.