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.”
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.