1990s HIV story still relevant, Arkansas lawyers told

Stigma less, not gone, attorney says

A Philadelphia attorney on Thursday shared his experience defending a client with HIV in the 1990s and told members of the Arkansas Bar Association that the issues surrounding that case remain relevant today.

On the second day of the association's annual meeting in Hot Springs, Alan Epstein took the stage in a conversational format with University of Arkansas School of Law Dean Emeritus* Cynthia Nance.

The pair said they met when they were seated together at a recent conference for labor and employment lawyers. When they began to talk, Epstein's story about a former client -- a young, gay, HIV-positive lawyer who was fired from his law firm -- sounded familiar to Nance.

She soon realized the case dealt with the same matters as the 1993 award-winning drama Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.

Though the film wrapped before the trial started the same year, Epstein's case gained attention of its own. The suit against a well-known Philadelphia law firm received national publicity and was the last federal trial televised on Court TV and CNN.

Epstein said Thursday that he took on the case because the story of his client, a young lawyer named Scott Burr, made him cry.

Burr had been fired from the firm after a coworker found his medical records. Burr initially was known in court as John Doe because of the stigma surrounding being gay and HIV-positive, and several members of the jury reported fearing casual contact with people with HIV.

[EMAIL UPDATES: Get free breaking news alerts, daily newsletters with top headlines delivered to your inbox]

Epstein told the jury that Burr had two deadly diseases: HIV and something more abstract, discrimination.

"That disease has a cure, and that cure was in [the jury's] hands," Epstein said Thursday.

"We were faced with the aversion to AIDS and the fact that this was a 'gay disease,' the fact that gay people were generally being ostracized to their own communities," Epstein said. "We had to make Scott a real person, a person you were able to sympathize with."

The firm's defense was that Burr was fired for unsatisfactory work, but the jury ruled in Burr's favor.

After meeting Epstein, Nance asked if he would come to Arkansas to share that story. Though the stigma around HIV and AIDS is less than it was in the early 1990s, Nance said she felt Epstein's story was still relevant.

A year ago, she said, she received a call from a friend of a friend. The person was a health professional in Arkansas who was HIV-positive and terrified. The person wanted to know if the diagnosis had to be revealed to the person's employer and the best way to do that. The person was concerned about being fired and about the stigma of the disease.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 5,006 people with diagnosed HIV living in Arkansas in 2013. Pulaski, Jefferson and Crittenden counties had the highest rates.

"We're talking about the history of [Epstein's] case," Nance said. "Lest you think this is a historical artifact, I have to tell you there are still a lot of concerns and questions about this issue even here in the state."

Kaye McLeod, an attorney at an adoption agency in Little Rock who attended Thursday's discussion, said she feels it's important for lawyers to take a stand in situations like Epstein's.

"We can make a change in the human consciousness about certain subjects and for the most part, understanding that we are dealing with human beings and very real problems," McLeod said. "It's not just the law, it's a human. And we're confronted with that every day."

Metro on 06/16/2017

*CORRECTION: Cynthia Nance is dean emeritus of the University of Arkansas School of Law. Her title was incorrect in a previous version of this article.