Hailei Joe, 36, filed a federal lawsuit against Olive Branch Assisted Living in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on Oct. 16. Her lawsuit alleged the facility violated the federal Fair Housing Act, the Arizona Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and state law.
"I'm Native American," Joe said. "My grandmother refers to us as the grassroots people because we are at the bottom of society, but I never thought in a million years that this would happen to me."
According to the lawsuit, Joe moved to Olive Branch Assisted Living, a residential addiction treatment facility, on Oct. 18, 2022. The facility is part of Terra Medical, a health care company based in Phoenix.
While she was moving in, she told a staff member that she suspected she might have HIV.
"I told the house manager when he picked me up, I was like, 'I'm pretty sure I have it,' and he told me, 'No, you probably don't,'" Joe said.
According to the lawsuit, about two weeks later, on Nov. 4, 2022, Joe received test results that confirmed she is HIV positive. After she informed the facility, she was subjected to public humiliation.
Olive Branch owner Russell Appleton banned Joe from a field trip and planned activities at the facility, according to the lawsuit. Then he allegedly gathered all of the patients who lived at the treatment center and told them a resident was HIV positive and that the facility was no longer “safe” for them,
Although Appleton didn't mention Joe by name, she started crying and other residents consoled her, the lawsuit notes.
"When that diagnosis came, literally, the day it came, they held a meeting," said Jonathan Dessaules, who is Joe's lawyer. "She didn't know what the purpose of the meeting was. And they said, 'Hey, someone here has HIV and none of us are safe.'"
"When they have a meeting for the specific purpose of saying someone here has HIV and nine people are sitting there listening intently and the 10th person is crying uncontrollably, it's pretty clear who he's talking about," Dessaules said.
The lawsuit also alleged that Appleton and another employee took Joe aside and told her "they did not know what to do" with her and that the facility couldn't help her.
Federal law protects people with HIV against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
Appleton did not respond to questions from New Times about the lawsuit.
‘This was a one-two punch’
Joe said she had no knowledge of HIV at the time and thought she was contagious. She was already scared — and Appleton's words reinforced her fears, she said.
After the residents' meeting, Olive Branch staff told Joe she had to leave, according to the lawsuit.
"This has not been a walk in the park for her," Dessaules said. "This was a one-two punch: First getting an HIV diagnosis and not being told what it means, and then, the very next thing, an hour later, being told, 'You shouldn't live here anymore.' That is a gut punch!"
Once the facility forced Joe to leave, it also stopped providing addiction treatment services to her, according to court documents.
"This is a care facility that exists to help people," Dessaules said. "They're taking the most susceptible people, and they're just marginalizing them, saying, 'Sorry, we're not gonna help you because of your diagnosis.'"
Joe filed the lawsuit because the eviction caused her housing instability and severe emotional pain. Although Joe was able to find another treatment facility, Dessaules said Olive Branch violated her privacy by sharing her HIV status with other residents.
"When you are in a care facility or a group home, it doesn't mean that you surrender your private information that's not relevant to other people," Dessaules said.
Joe is seeking a jury trial and punitive damages for the emotional and financial strains the eviction placed on her. She said the way Olive Branch treated her made her feel less than human and that she spent months fearing she was contagious and could hurt the people around her.
"I went to a rehab center for help," she said. "Instead, I got a place that refused me and left me with no knowledge and nothing to be able to protect myself."