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Philadelphia: Jury Nullification and Natural Rights

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In the film “Philadelphia,” Andrew Beckett was actively recruited by the Wyant and Wheeler law firm, one of the most prestigious law firms in Philadelphia. While employed for Wyant and Wheeler, Mr. Beckett contracts HIV and conceals his illness from his employers. Beckett showed great promise and was highly placed in the firm and was even placed at the head of a landmark copyright case whose outcome would have a major impact on the firm’s reputation. During the preparation for this important case, the formal complaint is lost with only minutes before the statute of limitations expires but is found “misplaced” in central filing. The firm used this as a reason to fire Mr. Beckett for incompetence. However, Mr. Beckett claims that his employer discovered that he had HIV, based on the appearance of Karposi’s Sarcoma lesions on his face. Based on this, Mr. Beckett sues the law firm in federal court for discrimination based on a handicap that did not prevent Mr. Beckett from performing the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation, which if true, would violate Title 42 U.S.C. § 12112. Mr. Beckett and his lawyer, Mr. Miller, used the Supreme Court case, School Board of Nassau County V. Arline (1987) as precedent that contagious diseases may be considered a handicap; however, employers may consider the contagious effects on others in determining the qualification of a person to perform essential functions by consulting the medical judgments of public health officials. The issue of this case is whether, in fact, Wyant and Wheeler law firm fired Andrew Beckett for incompetence or if they fired him due to their knowledge or belief that he had HIV. If the latter is found to be true, Wyant and Wheeler would need to prove that the judgments of public health officials show that Mr. Beckett is no longer qualified to perform essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations.

There are two ways that I could approach this case. The more conventional approach of determining whether existing statutes and laws were adhered to would lead me to agree with the jury in the film Philadelphia, so long as the events took place after the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The defendants make no claim that Mr. Beckett was no longer qualified to perform the essential functions of his job at the time he was fired and the evidence suggests that their claims of incompetence are either grossly exaggerated or simply false. The events leading up to the firing shows that the firm had the highest confidence in Mr. Beckett and therefore must have had ulterior motives for his dismissal. The reason I specify the events of the case needed to place after to 1990 is because the ADA was not in existence prior to 1990 and its predecessor the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, used in the School Board of Nassau County V. Arline (1987) case, only applied to programs that received federal assistance and not to private companies. So again, if Mr. Beckett was fired after the passage of ADA and I strictly followed the letter of the law, then I would rule in favor of Mr. Beckett in agreement with the jurors in the film.

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Filed under Law
Nov 5, 2011