EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the name of the plaintiff's attorney and to remove certain identifying information about the woman involved.
A former Colorado Springs Walmart employee endured “two years of hell” after a supervisor divulged she was HIV-positive and falsely warned co-workers they could be at risk, said a lawyer who is suing the company on her behalf.
In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, the woman, identified anonymously as Jane Doe, said she suffered debilitating health setbacks from the stress of being ostracized after her condition became a source of gossip at Walmart Neighborhood Market, 665 N. Murray Blvd.
“They treated her like a complete pariah — a leper,” the woman’s lawyer, Eudoxie “Dunia” Dickey, said, describing how co-workers wouldn’t touch her client or even make eye contact.
The suit alleges “egregious” violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Colorado anti-discrimination laws and federal medical privacy protections. Walmart Stores Inc. is the sole defendant named.
Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman, declined to comment on the allegations in detail, saying, “We respect the privacy of our associates and take allegations like this seriously.”
The woman was on medical leave battling “life threatening illness” when she received a letter on Christmas Eve 2014 notifying her that her leave had run out and that she would either have to come to work the next day or be terminated. When she responded that she was too ill to come in, she was fired.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleges her ouster was retaliation after the woman complained about her treatment through internal channels at Walmart, including to the store manager and a company ethics hotline.
After receiving her complaints, Walmart conducted what Dickey described as a “sham investigation,” saying they found no evidence of wrongdoing. The finding came even though two employees told the woman the supervisor had been gossiping about her, Dickey said.
Later, the same supervisor accused of disclosing the confidential information was transferred to a different shift and became her boss. The lawsuit alleges the woman subjected her to repeated “trumped up” disciplinary actions that affected her ability to petition Walmart for a transfer to a different shift or position.
Her filing of the suit was delayed by a lengthy investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The agency found “reasonable cause” to conclude the woman was “harassed because of her disability and subjected to retaliatory disciplinary action after complaining,” according to the complaint.
Dickey described the woman as a Colorado Springs grandmother who unknowingly contracted HIV from a former husband in 2007.
When she transferred to the Walmart Neighborhood Center in 2012, she informed two supervisors of her HIV status because she anticipated having to take time off for treatment.
Her position required no physical contact with customers or other employees, and wasn't in food service. The woman is “trained in universal precautions for any potential exposure,” Dickey said.
After word of her illness leaked, she struggled to go to work each day, suffering panic attacks and occasionally throwing up on the way.
“Her doctors believe that her work-related stress was causing her health to really collapse. While she was working there, she developed meningitis, once for 10 days,” Dickey said.
Gossip about her client’s health condition played on longstanding stigma, without basis in medical science, Dickey said.
Infected blood or bodily fluid must enter a person’s body before they are at risk of infection, including from sexual activity and sharing needles, according to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center based in Rochester, Minn.
“You can’t become infected with HIV through ordinary contact,” according to an advisory on the clinic’s website. “That means you can’t catch HIV or AIDS by hugging, kissing, dancing or shaking hands with someone who has the infection.”
Walmart declined to enter into mediation through the EEOC, suggesting it intends to take the case to trial, if necessary, Dickey said.
She said her client seeks “whatever a jury thinks is fair.”
“This is really not about the money for my client. She wanted to make this public. It’s so outrageous what happened here, and it’s so unnecessary. She doesn’t want something like this to happen to anyone else.”