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Ex-Employee With AIDS Sues McDonald's
  By THOMAS J. SHEERAN .c The Associated Press
CLEVELAND (AP) - A former employee with AIDS who is seeking millions of dollars in damages from McDonald's quit because he felt victimized by discrimination, his attorney said in opening statements Wednesday. The burger chain said the man refused a new position and resigned.
``Discrimination has put him in that position,'' Paige Martin told a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court jury in the case by Russell Rich, 41, of Akron, against McDonald's Corp. She outlined a series of Rich's lower-paying jobs without health insurance since he quit in 1997.
The burger chain ``destroyed his life'' and destroyed a professional identity formed during a 21-year career that began when Rich was 13 and worked at a McDonald's counter, she said. He rose to become an award-winning manager who left a franchise restaurant in suburban Stow for a company-owned store.
Martin said Rich kept his AIDS secret. The company apparently learned of it within weeks of when Rich took a job in July 1997 in a corporate restaurant in Minerva, located east of Canton, and was hospitalized with suspected meningitis.
``Everything at work became a hostile work environment,'' Martin said.
Rich said he was required to work double shifts and a 12-day stretch without a day off and had less responsibility.
Steven Catlett, an attorney for McDonald's, said the evidence would show that the company accommodated his hospital time off and a second hospitalization to have his gall bladder removed. Rich was offered a similar-paying job in Lodi, located southwest of Cleveland, but resigned. The company said another manager was given his position in Minerva during Rich's second hospitalization.
``Russell Rich quit. McDonald's didn't fire him,'' Catlett said.
Catlett portrayed Rich as a good employee at a low-key franchise restaurant who was unprepared for a more structured and closely supervised company-owned location. ``It's a lot more people to have to answer to,'' Catlett said. Catlett said company policy acknowledges that AIDS cannot be spread through food handling and the company doesn't discriminate against people with AIDS.
Rich worked for McDonald's just four months at the company-owned restaurant and, taking into account his hospital stays and a convention, was available to work just 59 days over that period, Catlett said.
Rich said he suffered four life-threatening illnesses between 1997 and 2001 because he could not afford medication.
This is the second trial on the lawsuit. A jury awarded Rich $5 million after a 2001 trial but the verdict was overturned on appeal because the trial judge incorrectly instructed jurors on the law. A different judge is presiding over the second trial.
Rich rejected a $300,000 settlement offer. Rich said he pursued the suit because McDonald's should pay for his AIDS medications costing tens of thousands of dollars a year, not the taxpayer-financed Ohio AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
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