Michigan court reconsiders case of woman who lost her job due to AIDS rumor

January 19, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- When the church members sat down at the Paradise Family Restaurant in Coldwater, Mich., their waitress didn't hear their whispers about her.

The whispers were spawning a rumor that Dorene Sanchez had AIDS. It was a rumor that would cost her a job and her reputation -- and would drive her from the city of 9,607.

"I was just too humiliated and stuff. Every time I walked into that restaurant, people would just look at me. I would feel real uncomfortable," she said in a 1988 deposition.

The rumor started in December 1987, less than a month after she started the $2.52-an-hour job.

More than four years later, the Michigan Supreme Court is expected to decide whether Miss Sanchez, now 25 and living in Florida, was denied protection under a state civil rights act.

The law was changed in June 1990 to cover discrimination not only against the handicapped but against people who are regarded as having a handicap, which the law says is a determinable physical or mental characteristic that limits their activity.

The legislature acted six days after the state Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision that Miss Sanchez's perceived handicap was not protected by the old law.

The revised law might be too late for her and others ready to bring similar lawsuits, one of her attorneys, Mark Brewer of Detroit, told the Supreme Court justices last month.

The Paradise's owner, Kostas Lagoudakis, said members of the local Church of the Holy Spirit, who were twice-a-week regulars at his restaurant, had said they did not want Miss Sanchez to serve them because she had acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

She was suspended, and "I told her to get doctor's proof that she was healthy," he said in court documents.

On Jan. 11, 1988, Miss Sanchez said, she got the results of a test for antibodies to the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

She did not have the virus. But she did not ask for her job back because Mr. Lagoudakis would have shown the results to customers: "He told me that, if I brought that back, and I was clean, if people requested, and I was working there, he would show them the piece of paper. My test results. It would just be too humiliating."

She declined to be interviewed. Her comments come from court documents.

Mr. Brewer, representing her for the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "Pretty soon, given the small-town nature of Coldwater, the word had spread throughout the town that this woman was infected with this virus."

He told the justices, "Miss Sanchez, humiliated, made into a pariah in this small town, leaves and is unable to return to work."

Throughout the case, it has been unclear how the rumor got started. "That's been a mystery," said Mark Stuart, the Marshall, Mich., lawyer who represented Miss Sanchez in her first suit against Mr. Lagoudakis and Paradise employee Maria Rojas Gutierrez, daughter of Holy Spirit's pastor, Angel Rojas.

The May 1988 suit blamed Ms. Gutierrez for spreading the rumor. In arguing his case before the justices in Lansing, Mich., Mr. Brewer said, "Every citizen in Michigan could suffer discrimination based on the erroneous perception of a handicap." Under the lower-court rulings, he said, people "have no remedy."

In seeking a retrial in Branch County Circuit Court, Mr. Brewer described Miss Sanchez as "an individual whose life has been destroyed by what happened here. She deserves redress. She deserves her day in court for that incident."

Her circuit court suit asked for damages in excess of $10,000.

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