Lambda Legal on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against a Wisconsin doctor, claiming he illegally discriminated against a patient by refusing to perform surgery after the patient tested positive for HIV infection and for failing to properly counsel him according to state law when the test came back positive. Steve Spera, 54, sought care from Milwaukee orthopedist James Cain for severe and debilitating back pain, according to Lambda. After two years of trying to address the problem with pain-management techniques, Cain recommended spinal fusion surgery, and Spera underwent a blood test to enter the hospital for the operation. The test showed that Spera was HIV-positive, and Cain subsequently refused to perform the surgery, according to the lawsuit. Cain continued to refuse to perform the surgery even after HIV specialists concluded it was safe for Spera to undergo the procedure.
"Doctors have an ethical and legal obligation to treat people with HIV. This doctor didn't just treat our client insensitively--he refused to treat him at all," said Jonathan Givner, AIDS Project staff attorney for Lambda Legal. "Steve suddenly learned that he has HIV, and he was given no resources or referrals to deal with that life-altering news. Instead, within five minutes of learning he has HIV he was discriminated against by his doctor even though there's no evidence at all that he posed a threat to himself or the doctor."
The Lambda lawsuit claims that Cain violated the federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act as well as several Wisconsin laws that prohibit discriminatory treatment. The lawsuit seeks a court order to prevent Cain from discriminating in the future and monetary damages for Spera.
Spera also has filed an administrative complaint with Wisconsin's human rights agency after learning that Cain does not order routine HIV antibody tests for all his surgery patients and that he was singled out by Cain for such a test because the doctor assumed he was gay. A federal complaint also was filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, alleging discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. That complaint was settled when Cain agreed to adopt a nondiscrimination policy for his office, consult with infection disease specialists as appropriate, and attend training programs regarding HIV.
"This case is so serious and egregious that we have to make sure these policies have teeth, so nobody else faces this kind of physical and emotional suffering," Givner said. "A court order will ensure that Dr. Cain never discriminates this way again, and it will also strengthen the legal precedent to keep other doctors in Wisconsin and elsewhere from mishandling patients this way."
The case is Spera v. Orthopaedic Associates of Milwaukee.