KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – A former student claims in a federal lawsuit that Virginia College booted her out of its cosmetology program in Tennessee last year after learning she has HIV.
In a complaint filed Friday in Knoxville federal court, Windy Heath alleges the for-profit Virginia College at Knoxville discriminated against her and violated her right to privacy by disclosing she has HIV.
“The determination by the Department of Justice that denial of admission to trade schools and/or obtaining of licenses for persons with HIV/AIDS constituted unlawful discrimination was well publicized for years prior to the discriminatory actions by defendant Virginia College,” the complaint states.
Heath also accuses Christine Adams, dean of the school’s cosmetology department, of battery for allegedly trying to forcibly remove Heath from a cosmetology class.
Reached by email, Diane Worthington, vice president of marketing communications for Education Corporation of America, Virginia College’s parent company, confirmed that Virginia College’s Knoxville branch still has a cosmetology program. However, she declined further comment, including about whether Adams was still employed by Virginia College or Education Corporation of America.
“It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation, and the rest of the questions are related to the litigation, so I can’t comment on those or provide a statement related to a lawsuit,” Worthington wrote.
According to the lawsuit, Heath began the cosmetology program on July 8, 2016. She says she wanted to learn cosmetology to support her children and herself, but the school removed her from the program nearly a month and a half later.
While enrolled at Virginia College, Heath took medication to control her HIV and knew what precautions she needed to take, according to the complaint, and the condition was nearly undetectable in her blood.
She says trouble began when her cosmetology class was starting a section of the curriculum where students used “sharp objects and hot instruments.”
Heath talked with Adams privately and told her she has HIV, according to the lawsuit, and Adams allegedly told Heath to clean out her locker.
But Heath claims she refused, knowing the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with HIV who want to become barbers, massage therapists or cosmetologists.
That has been the case since March 2011 when the Justice Department under former President Barack Obama sent a letter to attorneys general across the country clarifying its interpretation of the ADA.
In the letter, then-Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote, “Licensing boards and trade schools may not require an applicant to provide a medical certification that he or she is free of HIV/AIDS in order to be qualified for admission to the school or as a condition for receipt of the license.”
But Adams allegedly tried again on Aug. 18, 2016 to get Heath to leave, approaching her while Heath attended class.
“When plaintiff refused, in front of plaintiff’s entire class, defendant Adams grabbed plaintiff and attempted to forcibly remove plaintiff from the salon/classroom,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant Dean Adams advised students in the plaintiff’s class as well as in the cosmetology program that plaintiff was HIV positive, which was a private medical condition that Adams was not authorized to disclose to anyone.”
The next day, Sergio Takahashi, president of Virginia College at Knoxville, admitted during a meeting that Heath was wrongfully removed from the program based on her HIV status, she says.
According to a report last year from local CBS affiliate WVLT, Virginia College offered Heath readmission into the cosmetology program but she was still deciding whether to accept the offer.
“People with HIV are scared to try to progress in life and do better because of the backlash that comes back because of this,” she told the station.
Heath sued Virginia College on claims of invasion of privacy, ADA violations and breach of contract. She brought separate claims against Adams alleging battery and infliction of emotional distress.
She seeks $34.9 million including punitive damages, and injunctive relief ordering the school to change its non-discrimination policy.
Heath is represented by Troy Bowlin II in Knoxville.