Morehouse student denied access to program because of HIV status, lawsuit says

Credit: AJC file photo: Hyosub Shin

Credit: AJC file photo: Hyosub Shin

A former Morehouse College student recently filed a lawsuit against the school saying he was not accepted into an academic program after telling the search committee he’s HIV-positive.

The lawsuit, filed in late January in federal court in Atlanta, seeks $3 million in emotional distress damages, $81,000 in compensatory damages and wants the college to establish an appeals process for students denied entry to the program. Morehouse declined to comment about the lawsuit, saying it doesn’t discuss pending litigation.

The student, having made his first short film when he was 10, enrolled at the Atlanta college in 2016 hoping to study in its Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies program. The student, who is unnamed in the lawsuit, applied to the program in November 2018. He disclosed his HIV status in his application essay, according to the lawsuit complaint.

A faculty member on the search committee suggested that they not admit the student in the program because of his health status, saying the program is very demanding, according to the complaint. Another faculty member on the committee, Eric Baker, said rejecting the application because the student is HIV-positive would be “morally wrong and probably illegal.”

The lawsuit complaint includes a Jan. 22, 2019 email saying the student’s application was denied. Baker, though, said the committee approved the student’s application.

“The only factor or performance metric discussed to make decisions regarding John Doe’s CTEMS application was his HIV status, and its residual effects,” Baker wrote, signing the affidavit as Baker and his pen name, Adisa Iwa.

Baker said in his affidavit and told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday there have been other discriminatory incidents by some in the department. For example, he said in 2017 an administrator denied accommodations to a visually-impaired student because she didn’t believe him.

The lawsuit said the college’s alleged actions violated federal laws that prohibit discrimination against someone because of a physical or mental impairment. Morehouse is a private college, but receives federal funding.

The student used the pseudonym “John Doe” in the complaint. His attorney, Damon M. Scott, wrote in a court filing seeking his client’s anonymity in court proceedings that “privacy interests outweigh public interests.”

The student graduated in May 2020, but Scott told the AJC it would be a mischaracterization to say the student completed his studies there because he was denied entry into the program he aspired to complete.

“The Plaintiff has suffered emotional distress, increased anxiety and mental anguish, as a result of being discriminated against because of his HIV status by an alma mater that was once beloved,” Scott wrote in the complaint. “The Plaintiff revealed his innermost secret to the Defendant and the Defendant unlawfully used it against him.”

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