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Cirque reaches settlement with HIV-positive gymnast

Cirque reaches settlement with HIV-positive gymnast

Montreal-based entertainment company Cirque du Soleil on Thursday agreed to pay a record $600,000 to end a discrimination complaint filed by an openly gay gymnast who was fired last year because he has HIV. The settlement ends a federal disability complaint filed by Matthew Cusick, a former employee of the company, which became the target of protests by gay rights groups across the country after the firing became public. "I wish none of this had ever happened, but if it had to happen, I'm glad it ended with such a strong settlement that will impact other companies," said Cusick, a lifelong gymnast who will not return to work with Cirque. "I look forward to opening a new chapter in my life." The agreement is the largest public settlement ever for an HIV-discrimination complaint settled with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented Cusick. Cirque du Soleil will also host annual antidiscrimination trainings for all of its employees worldwide and will adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination based on HIV and other disabilities. For two years Cirque will have its records open to the EEOC to ensure it is in compliance with today's agreement. "When I was fired by Cirque du Soleil, it was the worst day of my life. Today is nearly the exact opposite, because I stood up for what I knew was right and changed one of the world's most popular entertainment companies," said Cusick, who described his job with Cirque as a "dream job" for any gymnast. "This kind of discrimination tears people's dreams and careers apart. While other people in all sorts of professions will still face HIV discrimination, after today they will have a powerful tool with the settlement we reached." Lambda filed the federal discrimination complaint with the EEOC in July 2003 after attempting to persuade Cirque to change its position and policy voluntarily. Although the company's own doctors had cleared him to safely perform for the Las Vegas-based show Mystere, Cirque du Soleil management told Cusick that because he has HIV he is a "known safety hazard" and the company would not continue to employ him. The EEOC investigated Cirque du Soleil for several months before ultimately finding that there was "reasonable cause to believe that [Cirque du Soleil] discriminated against [Cusick] when it discharged him because of his disability, record of disability, and being regarded as disabled." The EEOC then directed a mediation, which led to the settlement. "This is a huge victory for working people with HIV because it tells employers that there's a steep price to pay for HIV discrimination," said Hayley Gorenberg, director of Lambda's AIDS Project and the lead attorney on the case. "This kind of discrimination still happens all across the country, and today's record-setting settlement will have ripple effects nationwide." Lambda and community leaders launched a nationwide campaign against Cirque du Soleil late last year, which intensified over several months with protests outside Cirque shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orange County, Calif. Cirque du Soleil also came under fire from local governments, with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission launching its own discrimination investigation, the Los Angeles city attorney writing a strongly worded letter to Cirque du Soleil's founder and CEO, Guy Laliberte, and West Hollywood, Calif., officials condemning Cirque du Soleil for firing Cusick. The settlement of $600,000 includes $40,000 in legal costs for Lambda, with the rest of the money going to Cusick. Part of the settlement covers future earnings, as Cusick said Cirque's public hostility toward him over the last year led him to decide not to return to work for the company.

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