The Memphis Police Department’s onetime “Officer of the Year” was offered a position with the Nashville PD, which then rescinded the job once the acclaimed cop’s HIV+ status came to light, a new federal lawsuit obtained by The Daily Beast reveals.

He helped catch a killer, has been decorated for heroism, and volunteered for one of Memphis’ most challenging assignments. His doctor describes his health as “great,” and says he does not pose “any threat to co-workers or members of the community.” Still, Nashville city officials claim—amid an acute staffing shortage—that the officer is a danger to the public.

However, his viral load is all but undetectable—and, as such, untransmissible—thanks to a strict medication regimen, the officer argues in the potentially pivotal suit, which was filed July 21 in Nashville. Barring him from the force due to his HIV status, it says, “even though he posed no significant risk to others and was otherwise qualified for the job for which he had applied,” is discriminatory, and a violation of his civil rights. The Nashville PD “unabashedly indicated” that “if a person is living with HIV, then [it] will not employ that person as a police officer. And this is the end of the inquiry,” the complaint states. This policy, it asserts, runs counter to federal law and must be undone.

“Policies that categorically deny people jobs because of HIV status are just so out of date with science,” Jose Abrigo of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is representing the officer, told The Daily Beast. “In this case, our client has been undetectable. He is HIV positive, [but] he’s perfectly healthy. It’s the old HIV stigma, operating under this concept… [that] if you’re standing next to someone with HIV, you could potentially catch it.”

In an email, attorney Allison Bussell of Nashville’s Metropolitan Department of Law said, “We have not been served with the lawsuit yet and respectfully decline to comment on the pending litigation.”

The officer, who is Black, filed the suit under the pseudonym “John Doe.” He first learned in 2015 that he had HIV, according to the complaint. Doe began his law enforcement career more than a decade ago, enrolling in the Memphis police academy in 2011. Early on in his career, he “identified, chased, and apprehended multiple suspects that were wanted for their alleged involvement in the murder of a University of Memphis professor,” according to the complaint, which notes Doe “received multiple awards for his heroism including Officer of the Year for Memphis PD and his local precinct.” He was “also interviewed and appeared on the local news to discuss his courageous acts,” it states.

After two years as a patrol officer, Doe volunteered for the Memphis PD’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). The specialized squad responds to difficult calls involving people suffering from mental illness, according to the complaint, which says Doe was subsequently promoted.

“As part of this promotion, [Doe] received a raise, which he used to help pay for his master’s degree,” the complaint states. “By any measure, [Doe] has been a model officer and a credit to each police department and community he has served.”

When Doe’s wife took a new job in Nashville, and the family relocated to the Nashville suburbs, Doe kept his job on the Memphis PD, but applied to the Nashville force so he could stop making the three-hour-plus drive each way and spend more time with his wife and daughter, the complaint says.

On Feb. 25, 2020, Doe received an offer from the Nashville PD, conditioned on his passing a medical exam. The department’s doctor took blood from Doe, but didn’t explain why, according to the complaint. When the bloodwork analysis was later completed, a nurse called Doe to inform him he was HIV positive, the complaint continues. It says Doe replied that he was well aware of his HIV status, and said he had been undetectable for more than five years. (“Undetectable” means a viral load of less than 30 parts per milliliter of blood, Abrigo explained. And while such minute amounts cannot be picked up by standard viral load tests, HIV antibodies will still be detected on an antibody test.)

The following month, the Nashville PD sent Doe a rejection letter, reading, “The Civil Service Medical Officer’s report states you are not recommended to attend the Police Academy. All applications for the position of Police Officer Trainee must meet or exceed the medical standards set forth in the United States Army Induction Standards, 40-501.”

The Army’s requirements are used by Nashville’s Metropolitan Charter, the city said in response to a previous Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint Doe filed. In addition to leprosy, tuberculosis, and elephantiasis, HIV is listed as a potentially disqualifying condition under 40-501. Although people living with HIV are a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Doe’s “disability” still precluded him from becoming a Nashville cop, the city argued in its EEOC response. Inducting him into the department would violate the city’s charter, it claimed.

However, according to Abrigo, the Army’s HIV proscription no longer applies.

“Lambda also challenged the military code, so that now, as of April 2022, folks living with HIV can enlist in the military,” he said on Monday. “So, that doesn’t hold up anymore.”

Doe appealed the decision, to no avail. He then submitted a request for a medical waiver to override the regulation, explaining that “his diagnosis does not affect his ability to act as a police officer, as he is currently an active police officer in Tennessee.” It was accompanied by a letter from Doe’s primary care doctor, emphasizing that Doe’s viral load was indeed undetectable, that he would not imperil others, and that the “virus will not and has not ever effected [sic] his job performance or job duties.” Regardless, Doe’s appeal was denied.

Doe “cannot perform all the safety sensitive functions of the job without placing [others] at increased risk,” the city doctor who rejected Doe wrote in his decision, which Doe’s complaint says lacked any “objective scientific or medical evidence” or “individualized findings” about Doe’s specific situation.

At a stalemate, Doe accepted a position with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, according to the complaint. In the meantime, it says he experienced “emotional pain and suffering, stress, anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life, humiliation, inconvenience, and other monetary and dignitary harms.”

Abrigo told The Daily Beast that Lambda took the case specifically because the HIV-positive community in Tennessee has been under attack in general. In one example he provided, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, whose 2022 reelection effort was endorsed by Donald Trump, earlier this year rejected $9 million in federal funding for HIV prevention and monitoring.

“We’ve been doing these cases throughout the country, just updating the laws to make sure that they’re current with the most up-to-date science,” Abrigo said. “It’s also important to challenge these sorts of cases, because they have a racially disproportionate impact… In Nashville, if you’re a Black male, you’re three times more likely to have HIV than a white male.”

That’s why, even though the policy appears neutral on its surface, it has a disproportionate impact on people of color, Abrigo added.

In a 2012 case, also brought by Lambda, an aspiring police officer in Atlanta rejected over his HIV-positive status received a $250,000 settlement from the city. In 2017, following a federal lawsuit, a New York City man with HIV received $85,000 and the 911 operator job he had been denied. Last year, a volunteer reserve police officer in Clarksville, Indiana was awarded $150,000 after the town revoked a full-time job offer based on his HIV-positive status.

HIV is now a chronic, long-term health issue, and is “not a death sentence anymore,” noted Abrigo.

“Everyone has the right to be able to support their families and get a job, no matter their disability status,” he said. “… Unfortunately, stuff like this still exists throughout the country. But we’re challenging [these policies] one-by-one.”

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