We were contacted by a 45-year-old Philadelphia man with HIV who felt the confidentiality of his medical information had been flagrantly violated.

A health care worker visited his home last year to perform wound care. During the visit the worker told his uncle to keep the children in the household away from him because he had HIV.

The warning about casual contact demonstrated a disturbing lack of accurate information about HIV transmission. It also clearly violated state and federal confidentiality laws.

The team of Staff Attorney Adrian Lowe and Executive Director Ronda Goldfein contacted the home health care company about the incident.  Thankfully, the company accepted responsibility and agreed to pay our client $15,000.   Equally important, the company agreed to implement HIV transmission and confidentiality training for its staff.

Both HIV and immigration law are extraordinarily complicated and ever evolving. The intersection of the two can be impossible for many people to comprehend. Way back in 2000, a woman who had moved to the Philadelphia area from Liberia with her four young children contacted us. They were allowed to enter the country in 1996 to be reunited with their husband and father, who had been granted political asylum.

When her husband became ill and died, the family’s future turned uncertain. Through the vagaries of immigration law, they were no longer eligible for asylum through him and had to apply on their own behalf.

Managing Attorney Yolanda French Lollis helped the mother and four children finally get asylum in 2006, which allowed them to apply for a green card.

The children were granted green cards, but the mother, who had HIV, faced numerous hurdles. Although an HIV waiver existed at the time, an applicant had to be healthy to get it and she was too sick to qualify.

Despite the obstacles, we continued to fight for the family. A combination of the mother’s improving health and changes in immigration law concerning HIV eventually allowed us to help her apply for a green card.

It was granted in December. Throughout the ordeal her children thrived in their new country. All four have graduated from college.

“She said, ‘Thank you for not giving up on me,’” Lollis said.
A client had been denied Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, because her local Social Security Administration office in rural Pennsylvania kept miscalculating her finances. Our lawyer went to a hearing before an administrative law judge, where he methodically did the math, explaining why the woman was entitled to SSI. The judge agreed, granting the woman back payments for the SSI she had been denied and allowed her to get new payments.

A client came to us with a whopping overpayment of $136,000 in Social Security disability payments; SSA said he shouldn’t have received any disability payments because he was “working” at the time. He received a modest stipend over several years while studying for a university degree. We argued the stipend wasn’t tied to any requirements, such as teaching, so it can’t be counted as work. Social Security agreed with her, significantly reducing the overpayment demand.

Two of our clients were in a Philadelphia hospital that offers psychiatric treatment and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. They discovered that their names were on a list of patients with HIV that was left in the open, violating their confidentiality. They soon became pariahs on their floor, so much so that one of the clients was shunned in a group hug at the end of a counseling session. We sued the hospital, eventually getting a financial settlement for each client. More importantly, the hospital was reminded that patients deserve the peace of mind that their private information will be protected, especially when there are enough challenges to seeking and getting help with mental health, substance abuse and HIV-related issues.

A client who lives in public housing came to us with an eviction notice after being unable to pay her rent as a result of illness – first her child’s, then hers. She was a couple of days away from a lockout and we knew we had to move fast. After an understanding of the woman’s circumstances, and a recalculating of the rent based on her lack of employment, the client and her two young children were able to remain in their home. At last contact, the woman was on the mend and ready to resume working.

A mentally-ill client had been refused Social Security disability, which provides income to people whose disability prevents them from working. We pieced together the facts necessary to mount an appeal. Among evidence that had been ignored, we discovered the man had attempted suicide several times and had mutilated parts of his body. A judge eventually ruled in favor of the client, even repeating much of our brief in his decision. Finally, the client was scheduled to start receiving the much-needed disability checks that had been wrongly denied to him.

A client who is an HIV-positive single mother of four was fired from her job at a snack-food manufacturer after her supervisors found out her status. After a 4-year-long legal struggle, the company and the national staffing agency that placed her in the job agreed to settle discrimination claims out of court. Just as importantly, the staffing agency also agreed to distribute posters to all the food-service businesses it places workers at, reminding them that federal and state law prohibits discrimination against workers with HIV, and that HIV/AIDS is not on the list of diseases that can be transmitted through food handling.

A client called us seeking permanency-planning help for her two boys, aged 8 and 10. Pennsylvania’s Standby Guardianship law, which the AIDS Law Project authored, assists terminally ill parents make arrangements for the future care of their children. We made an emergency visit to the hospital and later went to court, ensuring that the boys were placed with their great-uncle after her death, in accordance with the client’s wishes.

A client who was fighting cancer came to us after getting a foreclosure notice on the Philadelphia home he lives in with his partner, one he grew up in and inherited from his mother. We negotiated with the mortgage company, which agreed on terms the client was able to meet. With the stress of losing his home off his mind, he focused on his health – and is now cancer-free.

A client who is a low-wage worker and speaks little English learned he was entitled to a significant tax refund. Then he received word that there was a problem with his return. At one point, the IRS was even claiming he owed money. We were able to show that the client was entitled to the tax deductions he claimed and to the refund.

A client was in danger of being thrown out of his apartment because he had three “rescue” cats and his building had a one-pet policy. We learned the client suffers from HIV-related depression. We showed that the cats were actually therapeutic, making their presence a “reasonable accommodation” under disability laws.

A client’s food stamp benefits were cut nearly in half without clear explanation. She visited her local welfare office, which offered little help. We reviewed the case, finding that state welfare officials had failed to consider the client’s housing subsidy, which made it seem she had more money than she really did. Because of our work, her benefits were restored.