Dental Discrimination

Sadly, there continues to be stigma and discrimination associated with HIV 30 years after the beginning of the epidemic, and the advent of universal precautions, which reduce healthcare transmission to zero.  

Imagine being refused medical treatment because you have a virus. Thanks to pro bono attorneys Marina Pantchenko and Sara Pezeshkpour, associates at Metz & Harrison, a disability rights law firm, people living with HIV don’t have to stand alone when their civil rights are violated.

AIDS Legal Services Project (ALSP) pro bono client “Anna,” is 34-year-old, married, and has been living with HIV for the past 17 years. Anna works full-time and receives Medi-Cal and Denti-Cal benefits to help her manage her healthcare. In pain, Anna was referred to a Denti-Cal dentist, “Dr. K” for an extraction.  The client was examined by Dr. K who also took x-rays and determined that three of Anna’s teeth needed to be pulled as soon as possible. Dr. K then walked Anna up to her receptionist to schedule the next appointment. At that time, the doctor took a closer look at Anna’s new patient questionnaire where she disclosed she was living with HIV. 

Dr. K then questioned Anna about her HIV and was told her health is stable and she is asymptomatic.  Nonetheless, Dr. K suddenly decided that she needed pre-approval from Denti-Cal and put off scheduling the extraction. When Anna followed up with the office several days later she was lied to and told Denti-Cal would not approve the extraction. At that point, the office turned Anna away and said they could not help her.  

Within weeks, Anna scheduled an appointment with a new dentist who extracted her teeth that same day, and said she wouldn’t have a problem getting Denti-Cal to retroactively approve the procedure.  Anna then contacted Denti-Cal herself and found out that Dr. K never contacted Denti-Cal for approval, and instead, used it as a pretext to unlawfully discriminate against Anna by refusing to provide her with services. To advocate for her rights, Anna turned to the Los Angeles HIV Law & Policy Project (“LA HLPP”), an ALSP collaboration, for help. LA HLPP filed an administrative complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing (DFEH), which also investigates discrimination complaints under the Unruh Act.

When DFEH accepted the complaint for investigation, it was at this juncture that Pantchenko and Pezeshkpour stepped in as pro bono counsel to make sure Anna’s full interests were represented. “Our firm, Metz & Harrison, was grateful for the opportunity to work with Anna and ALSP to send a powerful message to the dental provider that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated,” Pantchenko said.

“I would rate the services a 10 (on a scale of 1-10) because I feel they really cared about my case,” Anna said. “They were advocates that took my case seriously. Both Marina and Sara are amazing attorneys!  I’m glad they helped me with my case.”

After four months of negotiation with a DFEH consultant and opposing counsel, Anna received a $10,000 settlement and attorneys’ fees of $1,250 which were donated to ALSP. We are very grateful for their support.


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