San Diegans with AIDS and AIDS-related complex will soon be able to sue landlords, businesses and employers who discriminate against them for potentially large punitive damages under a new city ordinance adopted Monday.
City Council members voted, 8-1, to enact the AIDS anti-discrimination ordinance, making San Diego the eighth city or county government in California to pass such a law. The new city ordinance, which will become effective in little more than a month, mirrors an anti-discrimination measure approved by the County of San Diego last month.
In urging his colleagues to vote yes, Councilman Ed Struiksma said the anti-discrimination measure was overdue.
"Given the size of the city and the complexity of this city, it should have been done a long time ago," he said.
The ordinance makes it illegal to deny housing, employment, and business and government services to people diagnosed with or suspected of having AIDS.
Provision for Friends, Family
Under a definition adopted by council members Monday, that protection is also extended to those who, because of their association with an infected person, are "perceived and dealt with by others as though being infected with the virus"--a provision intended to protect friends and family members of those stricken with the deadly disease.
Although it is not treated as a criminal matter, the ordinance provides for those who suffer AIDS-related discrimination to file a lawsuit to obtain a court injunction and receive monetary damages. Council members on Monday agreed that the damages allowed under the ordinance could be as much as three times the actual losses, as well as what a jury would assess for punitive sanctions.
Councilman Bruce Henderson opposed that provision, calling it an "attorney's full employment act." He also asked his colleagues to narrow the focus of the ordinance by making it apply only to those with verified cases of AIDS.
Doing otherwise, he warned, would be to pass a measure that represents "an excess of legislative zeal often characteristic of ordinances suggested during periods of perceived crisis."
Henderson, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the anti-discrimination ordinance, said he was afraid that the triple losses and punitive damages provision of the new ordinance would subject "very, very decent and fine people who are trying to cope with this terrible disease in their own way to the nightmare of endless litigation in the event that they innocently make a mistake."
But Timothy R. Pestotnik, an attorney specializing in AIDS law, told council members on Monday that similar measures in other California cities and counties have not produced an explosion of litigation.
In Los Angeles, for example, only four out of the 250 complaints filed under an anti-discrimination ordinance have resulted in lawsuits; three have been settled and one is set for trial, he said.
"An ordinance that outlines only actual damages will provide little deterrent effect in stopping the discrimination that we've all come in here to stop," Pestotnik said.
The majority of council members sided with Pestotnik and kept the stiffer penalties in the ordinance.
After the hearing, Pestotnik, who works for free in a legal clinic for the San Diego AIDS Project, said that there have been about 50 complaints about discrimination since July, 1987.
'On the Upswing'
"We're on the upswing," he said. "We're had far fewer cases of AIDS than in Los Angeles, but we expect that as the number of cases increases, so will the complaints."
Under the new ordinance, no one with AIDS or perceived to have AIDS could be denied housing and housing services, such as water service, routine maintenance, access to washers and dryers, common recreational areas, parking, garbage pickup and janitorial services.
In addition, employers would be barred from segregating, turning away or firing AIDS sufferers. Blood tests could not be required unless there was a bona fide occupational reason.
Businesses, such as private schools and restaurants, couldn't refuse service to AIDS sufferers, and the city would have to make sure that access to public facilities and services, such as parks, was provided.
The anti-discrimination ordinance has received backing from numerous groups and organizations, including the Archdiocese of San Diego.
Other jurisdictions that have enacted similar measures include San Francisco, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, Oakland, Berkeley and the County of Los Angeles, said Pestotnik. The City of Santa Monica was scheduled to consider its own anti-discrimination ordinance Monday night, he said.
County officials will consider yet another AIDS-related ordinance when it holds a hearing this morning on whether to regulate activities in gay bathhouses.
Pestotnik said Monday that he supports such a measure, and most council members have said recently that they might endorse a similar city proposal, since all of the gay bathhouses are in San Diego proper. The council's Public Services and Safety Committee will consider the bathhouse issue soon, said Councilwoman Gloria McColl, chairman of the panel.