by Sarah Rutledge Fischer | photos by H.N. James
On March 23, 2001, Louis Holiday sat in a contentious settlement agreement across the table from the legal representatives of the City of Chattanooga.
Holiday had just won a Sixth Circuit appeal that had established that the city was not entitled to revoke their employment offer on the mere basis of Holiday’s HIV status. The tension in the room was extraordinary, and to make matters worse, the supposedly-neutral mediator was asking Holiday offensive questions like why he didn’t have concern for his fellow man and why he would risk passing his “HIV blood” on to someone else.
Holiday was getting angry. He knew that if the meeting continued, that anger would overtake him, and he would risk
ending up with nothing. So, he spoke up.
“Ma’am, I thought we were here to settle the case. I didn’t know that we were here to retry the case,” he said. “So, I want the City of Chattanooga to make me an offer, and I’m going to make them an offer. I’ll write my offer on the paper, and they’ll write their offer on the paper, and the attorneys can come to an agreement on this.”
And that’s how it went. That day and the settlement that Holiday reached with the city marked the end of an eight-
year ordeal that defined a period of Holiday’s life and changed the course of HIV-related employment law. The precedent established in that case is still applied today to ensure that HIV+ job applicants are evaluated, not on the basis of their HIV status, but on their ability to do the job.
Holiday’s relationship with the City of Chattanooga began in 1993, when he submitted an application for employment as
a police officer, but Holiday’s experience in law enforcement began long before that.
Holiday started with the Murfreesboro Police Department in the 1970s while in school at Middle Tennessee State University. Because he was at school during the day, Holiday rotated between the evening shift and the midnight shift. It was tiring, he says, but he was a young man. After graduating, Holiday worked in corrections for several years and then returned to police work with the Springfield Police Department and the Nashville Metro PD.
In 1991, Holiday’s appendix burst. In the hospital, doctors ran blood work and diagnosed him with HIV. Holiday kept the
diagnosis to himself among his peers. He started a regimen of AZT, but could not tolerate the side effects. There was no
change to his ability to perform his job. During his physical for the Metro Nashville Police, Holiday told the physician he
had HIV. The doctor was not particularly concerned. He told Holiday that there were other HIV+ people on the force.
In 1993-94, Holiday put in an application with the City of Chattanooga. He was a desirable candidate with ample experience. He scored well on the written exam and achieved the second highest score on the physical agility test despite being older than most of the other candidates. After an interview with the Chief of Police and the Administrator of the City’s Department of Safety, the city made Holiday an offer of employment, contingent on his successful completion of routine physical and psychological examinations. The city scheduled the exams and found him an apartment. Holiday began arranging his move to Chattanooga.
At the office of Dr. Steven Dowlen, M.D. for his physical, Holiday didn’t notice anything amiss. He and the doctor discussed his borderline anemia, a condition he had dealt with since high school, and Holiday informed the doctor of his HIV+ status. Before Holiday left, the Dr. Dowlen told him that he had passed the exam, but later the doctor’s office contacted the city’s personnel director, Donna Kelley, to say that Holiday had failed.
In court testimony, Kelley reported that her interactions with the doctor’s office led her understand that Holiday was HIV+ and suffered from an AIDS-related health problem. When Holiday came in for his psychological exam, he was instead sent to Kelley’s office where he remembers her telling him that the office was withdrawing his offer because he was HIV+ and “we don’t want any HIV people working on our police force.” She told him that she could not “put other employees and the public at risk by hiring you.”
Other men might have walked away, but Holiday knew that what the City of Chattanooga was doing was wrong, and the what had just happened to him could happen to more people after him. He drove immediately to Nashville to the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office and filed a complaint. After some difficulty getting the City of Chattanooga to respond, the EEOC reviewed Holiday’s claim and granted him a right to sue.
Holiday had no money for an attorney, so he called the ACLU who connected him an attorney named Chip Rowan, out of Atlanta. Holiday spoke with Rowan and his paralegal, Theresa Harrison, on the telephone and soon drove to their Atlanta office to meet in person. Rowan and Theresa had all of the information from the EEOC, but Holiday sat down with them and told the story from his point of view.
Holiday remembers Rowan telling him, “If you’re willing to go forth with this case, I’m willing to go forth with it, because this is just totally wrong. They have no basis for withdrawing the offer of employment.” Holiday had met his champion.
The team brought the case to the District Court, but the judge granted the City of Chattanooga’s motion for summary judgment, meaning that the case was dismissed in the city’s favor. When Rowan asked the judge for the basis of
his ruling, Holiday remembers the judge answering, “Because I said so.” Rowan left the courtroom even more furious
than Holiday. Neither man was ready to back down. The ACLU had assured payment for Holiday’s legal fees all the
way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. There was no question about it. They were going to appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Even though it turned out to be the most important legal leg of his journey, Holiday was not very involved in the circuit court appeal. That stage of a legal battle isn’t about facts, it is about the application of law. When it was time to argue the appeal, Rowan asked if Holiday wanted to accompany him to Cincinnati, but Holiday said no. Money was tight, and he trusted Rowan to handle the case appropriately.
Soon after, Rowan called Holiday from Cincinnati to tell him that he thought things were looking good for their case. Three or so months later, the court returned a ruling in Holiday’s favor: The City of Cincinnati had not been entitled to rely on the doctor’s unfounded recommendation and revoke his offer of employment merely because of his HIV+ status. It was over, and Holiday had won.
These days Holiday lives a quieter life. He is in his sixties now and considers himself an extraordinarily lucky man. He remains close to Theresa Harrison, the woman who acted as Rowan’s paralegal and second in command throughout his case.
He just finished treatment for colon cancer and counts it as a victory that he did not lose his hair. He wears it in long dreadlocks and cuts it periodically to donate to Locks of Love, an organization that turns hair donations into hairpieces for children suffering medical hair loss. Holiday’s viral load has been undetectable for longer than he can remember. His HIV-related medical regimen—once a complicated daily schedule of 12 pills—is down to a single pill a day.
He doesn’t consider himself particularly courageous for standing up to fight against the City of Chattanooga. It was more a matter of taking the necessary next step.
“I would never allow anyone to discard my constitutional rights,” he said, “or disgrace my humanity.”
To the extent that Holiday is still fighting, he fights for those like himself, living with HIV, by volunteering for the Nashville
HIV service organization, Street Works. Holiday came to Street Works as a client, then later became a member of the
When asked what he would say to young men living with HIV today, Holiday didn’t hesitate.
“Never give up,” he urged. “If you give up, you have surrendered. You may lose a battle or two, but if you give up you have lost the entire war.”
For more information about Streetworks, and the work they do to provide education, prevention, and care to those affected by HIV/AIDS on the inner-city streets of Nashville, go to street-works.org, or find them on Facebook at nashvillestreetworks and Twitter at @streetworks.
In addition to the work promoting justice and kindness in the world, Holiday is a writer of epigrams and aphorisms—short sayings that capture a commonly experienced truth.
If you are unwilling to take a step, you’ll be unable to
Strong words are always better than bitter blessings.
All it takes for the betterment of humanity is the
good of a human.
Ignorance is merely not knowing. Stupidity is when
you learn yet choose to be ignorant.
Friendship is the sharing of souls through the love
of hearts to stimulate minds.
(Inspired by his friendship with Theresa Harrison, who served as
paralegal in his case.)