The deadly disease AIDS is a physical handicap under state law and employers may not discriminate against AIDS patients who are able to work, a state commission ruled today.
In a precedent-setting decision, the Fair Employment and Housing Commission unanimously ordered damages of about $6,000 to survivors of a Santa Barbara man, John Chadbourne, who died of an AIDS-related cancer in January, 1985, at age 36 after being denied reinstatement by his employer.
The employer, Raytheon Co. of Goleta, could appeal the ruling in Superior Court.
"Obviously we are disappointed," said Raytheon spokesman Jeffrey Charney. "We do feel that we acted reasonably and in good faith and didn't violate Mr. Chadbourne's rights." He said no decision has been made yet on an appeal.
"It's a vindication not only for John Chadbourne but also for those other employees who have AIDS and are able to work," said Leonard Graff, a lawyer for National Gay Rights Advocates, which represented Chadbourne's estate.
Chadbourne was a quality control analyst at Raytheon's Electromagnetic Systems Division who was hospitalized with pneumonia in December, 1983, and diagnosed a month later as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Shortly afterward, his doctor said he could return to work, but Raytheon refused to reinstate him without assurances that other employees would not be endangered. He never got his job back before he died.
(Los Angeles, West Hollywood, San Francisco and Berkeley have already enacted city ordinances prohibiting job and housing discrimination against AIDS sufferers. But, according to Gloria Barrios, a staff attorney for the state commission, the new ruling helps protect those ordinances against future legal challenge.)
The commission's members were appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who has twice vetoed bills that would have explicitly forbidden job discrimination against AIDS victims.
One of Deukmejian's explanations for his vetoes has been that he believes current law already forbids AIDS discrimination. That was the interpretation adopted by the commission.
"There can be no doubt that AIDS does constitute a physical handicap," the commission said.
'A Tragic Certainty'
Noting a 1982 state Supreme Court ruling defining "handicap" under state law as a physical condition having a disabling effect in the present or future, the commission said that, although Chadbourne's AIDS was not disabling when it was first diagnosed, "there was . . . a tragic certainty that the condition would at some time in the future seriously impair his physical ability and ultimately kill him."
The commission rejected Raytheon's defense that its action was needed to protect Chadbourne's fellow workers.
Even in early 1984, when Raytheon refused to let Chadbourne return to work, there was "a strong medical consensus" that AIDS could be transmitted solely through intimate sexual contact or intravenous injections, and not through the kind of casual contact that occurs at work, the commission said.
The commission awarded Chadbourne's estate damages for the salary he lost by being improperly denied reinstatement between January and August, 1984, when he no longer was able to work.
Damages for emotional distress and punitive damages were refused, on the ground that the company's actions, though unjustified, took place in a climate of "considerable uncertainty."