A nail salon owner charged with violating a West Hollywood city ordinance by allegedly discriminating against an AIDS patient was only protecting the salon's employees and clients from exposure to the disease, her defense attorney said.
In the first public response to criminal charges filed by the city in December against Jessica Vartoughian, owner of Jessica's Nail Clinic, attorney Joseph B. Copelan also claimed that AIDS victim Paul Jasperson deliberately entered the salon and screamed that he had contracted the disease.
"We can't understand why a person would walk into a shop and do that," Copelan said. "The only reasonable assumption one could make is that he came in and announced this to either test this law or to damage Jessica's reputation."
Vartoughian has been charged with two counts of violating West Hollywood's AIDS discrimination ordinance, which was passed by the City Council a year ago to discourage city businesses from denying employment, housing and commercial services to patients with acquired immunity deficiency syndrome.
Attorneys acquainted with anti-discrimination laws in other cities said the misdemeanor charges against the salon could become the first legal test of efforts to protect AIDS victims from being denied commercial services.
An arraignment had been set for Dec. 29 but was delayed until Jan. 13.
Copelan said Vartoughian plans to plead not guilty. Vartoughian has not replied publicly to the charges, referring inquiries instead to Copelan.
Jasperson and city officials scoffed at Copelan's explanations, insisting that Jasperson did not call attention to his affliction when he tried to make an appointment for a pedicure at Jessica's.
And City Atty. Michael Jenkins ridiculed Copelan's assertion that Vartoughian and her employees were trying to protect the public from the disease.
"If they had concerns, they could have taken any of the proper precautions that doctors and dentists take, wearing gloves and masks and other equipment," Jenkins said. "There is no excuse for denying Mr. Jasperson service because he has AIDS."
Jasperson has said that he first went to Jessica's July 24--days after he was hospitalized and diagnosed with AIDS--only to get a pedicure. The situation remained unresolved despite negotiations between the city and the salon, and ultimately charges were filed Dec. 8.
"If I really wanted to damage her business, I would have gone public last July," Jasperson said.
According to Jasperson, his pedicure appointment was canceled after a manicurist at the salon overheard him talking to a friend about his recent diagnosis. He said that subsequent attempts to rearrange the appointment were unsuccessful.
However, Copelan said the manicurist at the salon will testify that Jasperson "walked in screaming" that he had AIDS. "All I know is the (manicurist) said he screamed and showed his arms where he had his (AIDS) tests," Copelan said.
Copelan said Vartoughian had a "state-imposed duty" to cancel Jasperson's pedicure appointment once she and her staff learned that he had AIDS. The attorney said that state Board of Cosmetology (which regulates nail salons) rules compelled Vartoughian to refuse Jasperson her services.
Copelan referred to a section of the state code which prohibits cosmetologists from working "upon a person suffering from any infectious or communicable disease."
"When you are using the kinds of sharp instruments that are needed for a pedicure, it is possible for blood to exude from a cut cuticle," Copelan said. "That blood can get on instruments that are used over and over again."
Copelan also blamed city officials for being overzealous in their efforts to protect AIDS patients.
Protecting Gay Rights
"We know from the City Council meetings in West Hollywood that they're anxious to prove to the world that they're out there protecting the rights of gays," he said.
City Atty. Jenkins responded to Copelan's assertions by saying, "They are strictly the product of the imagination."
Insisting that Vartoughian could have allayed her concerns by taking precautions, Jenkins said that her refusal to provide Jasperson with a pedicure was "simple discrimination."
"There are some exceptions in the (city) law for blood transfusions and organ donors, but all other businesses are expected to comply," Jenkins said. "If doctors and dentists can comply, so can Jessica's."
Vartoughian has operated her Sunset Boulevard nail salon since 1971. Copelan said she has attracted more than 9,000 clients, including a dedicated celebrity clientele.
Vartoughian also manufactures nail polish and similar items, Copelan said.