Dental Offices Under ADA – November 2008

In Bragdon v. Abbott., in a United States Supreme Court case decided in 1998 the Court decided that involving the ability of a dentist in the State of Maine who refused to treat a patient who had the HIV/AIDS virus because he stated that it was against his office’s policy to treat someone with AIDS. The Plaintiff, Sidney Abbott visited the defendant dentist, Dr. Randon Bragdon of Bangor, Maine in 1994 at his office for a dental examination. Dr. Bragdon discovered that Abbott had a cavity that needed to be filled. Abbott had filled out a patient registration form on which she disclosed that she had the AIDS virus. Dr. Bragdon proceeded to inform Abbott that it was against his office’s policy to treat patients with AIDS. He offered to treat Abbott at a hospital with no added fee for his services.   Abbott declined his offer and filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Kennedy found the plaintiff in what has become a landmark case under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court found that because the dental office was a place of public accommodation and a public health provider, Dr. Bragdon had to treat a patient like Abbott with a disability which interfered with a major life activity, or the ability to reproduce.

The Court analyzed a number of legal claims, including whether AIDS was a direct threat to the health and safety of others. The Court relied on evidence from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that during dental treatment the AIDS virus during its asymptomatic stage was not a direct threat to the health and safety of others. The American Dental Association’s policy that HIV/AIDS was a treatment which did pose a risk for dentists was not followed particularly because it was a professional association and not a public health organization like the CDC.

In addition to the decision regarding the requirement for dentists to allow the patient with AIDS to be treated for dental care, it is important to note for dentists to make new offices accessible to disabled people with such devices as wheelchairs if a reasonable accommodation such as a ramp can be readily achievable. In each case where a dental office is newly constructed or renovated, there is always a question of whether the accommodation is readily achievable. The Bragdon case stands for the principle that is always prudent to provide for that accessibility whenever possible.