NationsBank to be tried in firing of gay Reversal in case involving HIV

December 06, 1996|By BLOOMBERG BUSINESS NEWS

NationsBank Corp.'s Maryland bank must stand trial on discrimination charges in connection with the firing of an employee who is HIV positive, an appeals court ruled.

In so ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., reversed a lower court that had decided in favor of NationsBank without a trial.

In its decision, the appeals court said William Runnebaum had established sufficient evidence of discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act to go to trial. Runnebaum was diagnosed with HIV in 1988.

Runnebaum sued the company in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in 1993 after he was fired from a sales position for failing to complete certain assignments and "failing to present a professional image."

Alan Epstein, the attorney who represented gay, HIV-infected lawyer Scott Doe in the 1994 employee-discrimination case that inspired the movie "Philadelphia," said the 4th Circuit's ruling was "very noteworthy."

"It is enlightening that the most conservative circuit in the country" recognized the rights of people with disabilities, he said. "It just so happens that this case deals with AIDS."

The district court ruled in favor of NationsBank Sept. 19, saying that Runnebaum had failed to establish a case under the federal disability law and the Equal Employment Retirement Income Security Act.

Runnebaum was hired in June 1991 by a Baltimore branch of NationsBank.

In September 1992, Runnebaum told a department manager that he was infected with HIV. The manager said in court that he initially felt "panicky" and "uncontrolled" when Runnebaum told him of his HIV infection, court papers said.

Runnebaum was fired in January 1993 by his supervisor, who said she decided to fire him before she learned he was infected with the HIV virus. Court papers said she learned of his infection about the time she met his gay lover at a company banquet in December 1992.

According to court papers, Runnebaum received positive reviews and comments while he was employed by NationsBank. He had brought in about $5 million in assets for the company by the end of 1992, the documents said.

A co-worker, who had been hired at the same time in an identical position, made only one sale during the year valued at $275,000, court papers said. The co-worker wasn't fired.

Two of the judges reviewing the appeal said a "jury could reasonably infer that Runnebaum met the bank's legitimate expectations."

Appellate Judge Karen J. Williams dissented in Tuesday's opinion, saying that Runnebaum couldn't prove a case of discrimination. "Even stellar performance in some areas cannot overcome an overarching failure to fulfill professional responsibilities," she said.

"This case implicates broad ramifications respecting procedural principles, substantive discrimination law, and the force of precedent, and in my opinion, represents a sharp departure from established precepts in all of these respects," Williams said.

An official at Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank Corp. said the company "couldn't comment on pending litigation."

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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