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Cirque du Soleil agreed Thursday to pay $600,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by an HIV-infected gymnast who was fired by the Canadian circus company last year. Matthew Cusick, 32, was fired because the company, which is known for its daring aerial acts, said he posed a health risk to other performers. “They said I was a hazard not just to other performers, but to the crew and possibly the audience,” Cusick said Thursday in a telephone interview. “I think the settlement sends a message to other employers if you discriminate against people, there’s going to be a price to pay.” Cusick was a “catcher” in the Russian High Bar act and an acrobat in the Chinese tall pole act. He voluntarily disclosed his health status and spent four months training with the group. He was fired just days before he was to join the “Mystere” show in Las Vegas. Cusick filed a complaint last July under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which includes protections for people with HIV. Six months later, just hours after federal labor investigators found “reasonable cause” to believe the Montreal-based circus engaged in job discrimination, Cirque du Soleil offered to reinstate Cusick. Cusick refused. “I thought a lot about it because a dream is very hard to walk away from,” Cusick said. “I can’t go back and work for a company that stood so strongly against me.” Cirque du Soleil spokeswoman Renee-Claude Menard said Thursday the company regretted firing Cusick and said it made the decision out of ignorance. “We didn’t have all the knowledge on what HIV is and how it’s transmitted,” Menard said. “We were very genuine in saying that we wanted him back. He could’ve done so much to raise awareness.” Instead, months of negotiations with Cirque du Soleil through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission resulted in Thursday’s settlement, which is the largest EEOC settlement for an HIV complaint, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented Cusick. “This kind of discrimination tears people’s dreams and careers apart,” Cusick said. “While other people in all sorts of professions will still face HIV discrimination, after today they have a powerful tool with the settlement we reached.” Under the terms of the settlement, Cirque du Soleil also agreed to provide annual mandatory anti-discrimination training for its employees worldwide and to adopt a zero-tolerance discrimination policy. It also will leave its records open to the EEOC for two years to ensure it follows the requirements of the agreement, Lambda Legal said. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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