Human Resources News & Insights

Severe obesity as a disability: New ADA trend?

Another federal court has ruled that morbid obesity qualifies as a disability – even if it’s not caused by an underlying medical problem.

The case involved Lisa Harrison, who worked with young children of mothers undergoing treatment for addiction in New Orleans.

Harrison had a serious weight problem, weighing more than 400 pounds when she was hired. Her weight later ballooned to over 527 pounds while employed.

Despite her weight issues, Harrison was reportedly a stellar employee — her supervisor rated her quality of work as “excellent” in her last performance review.

However, a year later, Harrison was fired due to her “limited mobility” and concerns that she would be unable to administer CPR. Harrison turned around and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming her termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Before the case could make it to court, Harrison died due to complications from her weight. The EEOC moved forward with the suit on her behalf.

Sticking point: Was obesity a disability?

In court, the company argued that severe obesity alone can’t qualify as a disability. The firm cited select federal court rulings that found that the obesity needed to be caused by some underlying psychological condition (such as a musculoskeletal, cardiovascular or respiratory ailment).

The EEOC claimed otherwise. Agency officials said that, even though being overweight doesn’t generally qualify as a disability, people with severe obesity (defined as body weight more than 100 percent over the norm) are disabled under federal law.

The court — surprise! — sided with the EEOC and sent the case to trial, saying that “severe obesity qualifies as a disability under the ADA and that there is no requirement to prove an underlying physiological basis.”

Takeaway

It’s clear the EEOC is standing firm behind its belief that all employees with severe obesity qualify as disabled under the ADA, regardless the reason. This new ruling only bolsters their argument.

Best bet: If you’re on the fence about accommodating an overweight employee, consider seeking legal counsel before denying it.

Cite: EEOC v. Res. for Human Dev., Inc., U.S. Dist. Crt., E.D. La., No. 10-03322, 12/7/11.

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  • Brian

    Wow, that is tough. I understand morbid obesity can be caused by many underlying issues. There are many people who will abuse this going forward.

  • Common Sense

    Yet another perfect example of our liberal government rewarding bad behavior. Everyone eventually pays for these inane policies.

  • H2r

    Let’s see, if you drink alcohol and develop liver cancer; smoke tobacco and get lung cancer; dive of a cliff into shallow water and become paralized – you’re disabled. I fail to see why overeating and becoming obese would be any different. Gee I think I’ll eat myself to death just to take advantage of the system. Really!
    Let’s go have a tea party and pat ourselves on the back for screwing everyone that isn’t just like us.

  • EME

    While I am not agreeing with the ruling, there is a big difference between comparing someone with a compulsive eating disorder to someone who drinks alchohol, smokes or dives off cliffs into shallow water. You can’t avoid eating everyday, but all of the other activities can be avoided altogether. You rarely see people losing jobs for being to thin. Just a thought.

  • Common Sense

    It appears that the Tea Party basher (H2r) has once again deliberately misrepresented my argument and implied that I believe people are intentionally eating themselves “to death just to take advantage of the system.” I have not. I am simply trying to point out that the overly expansive governmental safety net has too often removed indivdual individual responsibility from the social contract and society as a whole has to pay for the unintended consequences.
    P.S. If people are concerned about becoming disabled via diving off a cliff into shallow water or otherwise, they should be purchasing disability insurance. “I fail to see why” irresponsible people should be able to burden the rest of society who are responsible. In the end, it would appear that people who believe in individaual responsibility (Tea Partiers) are not the ones “screwing everyone” so much as the people who expect government to provide cradle to grave protection regardless of behavior. (like shallow water cliff divers and morbidly obese people who refuse to stop putting donuts in their mouths)

  • Voice of Reason

    Am I the only one who thinks there’s a lot of information missing from this article? It seems highly unlikely a company would ever just up and fire an employee with a stellar record. Had she seriously never been written up or ever talked to about their (forgive the pun) growing concerns? I think the author needs to clarify a few things before everyone just starts categorizing EVERYONE (this on is disabled, that one is not, this one is a leftist and this one is obviously conservative…etc.). More information, please. This is a huge concern in the employment arena at every level.

  • Common Sense

    @Voice of Reason. The article does state that “Harrison was fired due to her “limited mobility” and concerns that she would be unable to administer CPR.” CPR is apparently a job requirement for her field of work. Stellar record or not, if an employee can no longer perform required tasks, the company should be able to replace her.

  • Voice of Reason

    @Common Sense. Yes, I see that, my point is that surely she was spoken to on numerous occassions regarding this growing issue. In my experience, articles like this that illicit such emotional responses are missing some detail that would tone down most of the outrageous generalities that seem to ensue. I would agree with anyone stating this is unfair if it were just an ‘all of a sudden’ decision on the company’s part and she was never given an opportunity to either correct the situation or prove she could still perform the necessary job functions. It just seems to me that it surely wasn’t and that is a big detail to leave out of such a potentially igniting article.

  • Common Sense

    @ V.O.R. It is true that the article fails to detail how many times Harrison was spoken to about her weight issue. I would hope that she did have fair warning to correct her “growing concerns”. However, it is not pertinent to my original point. Irregardless of whether or not the company gave her several warnings or zero, the company should have been within it’s rights to let her go if she was incapable of performing her job duties (administering CPR to save children). What kind of trouble would the company have If the company realized she is incapable of performing CPR and a child died on her watch?
    What is one man’s outrageous generality is another man’s simple truth. The simple truth is that “left” leaning EEOC has taken a “left” leaning ADA law and abused it beyond the original intent. In the end, the whole society pays for bad policy that rewards bad behavior. I don’t think it is “outrageous” to comment on the root of these societal problems.

  • Common Sense

    @V.O.R. I just realized that your comments may have been directed solely at H2r and not at me since my comments were all fact based, pertinent and sensible, in which case you would have been accurate. The Tea Party “screwing every one” comment was indeed an “emotional” and an “outrageous generality” type of comment. I apologize if that was the case.