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Aisling Swift, Naplesnews dot com: Gay couple, Ridgway Bar & Grill settle Florida HIV discrimination case out of court

Gay couple, Ridgway Bar & Grill settle Florida HIV discrimination case out of court
by Aisling Swift, August 11, 2011

photo: Forrest Chaplin (left) and Tim Robertson pose after their commitment ceremony May 6 on the beach in Key West, a month before they lost their jobs.

NAPLES — A gay Naples couple has settled a lawsuit alleging they were fired from their jobs at a popular Naples restaurant because they were HIV-positive, using the settlement to start a new life in Nashville.

John Timothy Robertson, 29, and his partner, Steven Ray “Forrest” Chaplin, 36, can’t comment on the confidential settlement with Ridgway Bar & Grill, but they used the money for relocation expenses.

“The plaintiffs are happy the matter is resolved and they can concentrate on beating HIV/AIDS and living their lives together,” said their attorney, Matthew Sarelson of Miami.

Both men wanted to move on and end the fight. When there was a chance to settle the case, they did.

“My health got so bad before we settled that I almost died twice,” Robertson said this week. “They were making burial plans for me.

“I lived that lawsuit every single day and stressed about everything that was going on — to the point that it was ridiculous for both of us,” he said, adding that he was hospitalized with shingles and on painkillers 24 hours daily. “When I got out of the hospital, I said, ‘I am done. Let’s get it over with.’’’

Their employer also didn’t want to continue an expensive legal battle, although in court papers, restaurant President Anthony Ridgway and Vice President Suzanne Honeycutt denied discriminating against or firing the couple because they have HIV.

The restaurant operators’ attorney said the recent settlement had nothing to do with whether their claims were valid.

“While I cannot comment on the terms of the settlement agreement or on this case in particular, I can say, in general, that it is a shame in today’s litigious society that the costs of taking a meritless case to trial is oftentimes not practical when weighing the cost of litigation as compared to the opportunities for settlement,” said their attorney, Jaime Maurer of Fort Myers.

Kessella Brown, a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) spokeswoman and analyst in Miami, said it’s common for employers to reach quick settlements and some consent decrees require staff training in return for a “hush order” about the settlement amount.

“It’s best to settle rather than face a large settlement later,” Brown said of some EEOC investigations that determine employers violated federal and state laws. “They realize ‘We messed up and there’s no reason to take this through litigation and face more later.’’’

The men, who filed EEOC complaints, sued a year ago.

The recent settlement came after Collier Magistrate James McGarity denied Ridgway’s motion to dismiss in April, ruling against defense arguments that Ridgway and Honeycutt couldn’t be held personally liable, only their business.

In May, Collier Circuit Judge Cynthia Pivacek reviewed McGarity’s recommendations and signed an order. That moved the case closer toward a resolution.

Robertson was hired at the restaurant in October 2009 and was an assistant manager. Four months later, Chaplin was hired as a server.

In March 2010, they got married during a civil ceremony in Key West. But the next month, on April 16, Robertson told restaurant vice president Honeycutt he was HIV positive after she’d noticed they’d been sick and had doctors’ appointments. The lawsuit alleges she was concerned about them taking time off and asked how their medications would affect their work.

On May 20, 2010, the lawsuit says, they began receiving letters about their work performance and met with their boss. On June 6, they say Ridgway fired them and asked the staff not to say anything about the couple because it would “ruin the restaurant’s reputation.”

The lawsuit alleged that was a violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act. Under the state act and Americans with Disabilities Act, discriminating based on a disability is prohibited. That includes HIV because AIDS is a qualified medical condition.

* * * * * * * * * *

For Robertson and Chaplin, the decision to move came after news of their lawsuit made it more difficult to find a job here in a tough economy. But they also wanted a change.

Robertson’s T-cells were declining and Chaplin was having to watch his partner’s health decline, while fighting for his own health.

“I promised him we were going to get out of Naples,” Robertson said, adding that they chose Nashville because relatives were close by and because it’s more urban. “Forrest and I wanted to get away from the narrow-mindedness of Naples. It’s a lot more open here.

“It’s been a positive move,” he added.

Good medical care also was a priority and they chose Nashville partly due to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“It’s a teaching hospital and they had a lot more to offer than the Collier County Health Department,” Robertson said, adding that they can get medications for longer periods without checkups. “I was going to the doctor every week in Naples. The doctor here said we didn’t need to come back for six months.”

Chaplin’s mother, Mari Rothman, 55, the former owner of Salon Delphine in Naples, had a dying wish — that her son go to college. He’d always been interested in fashion and retail, but never pursued that dream. He applied and received financial aid to go to the Art Institute of Tennessee-Nashville, where he’s studying fashion design, merchandising and marketing.

He also started a job this week at a restaurant in East Nashville. And on the side, Chaplin, who used to perform in drag at Snappers Night Club in Naples, plays in drag shows in Nashville, where he’s still known as Pink or The Rock Chick, Veronica Bond.

Robertson, meanwhile, has sent out 150 resumes in hopes of a management position.

“A lot of people are scared to hire because they think you’re lawsuit happy,” Robertson said of some employers finding their names in web searches during a background check. “It’s still haunting us here.”


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