• Court Rules Severe Obesity Is a Disability Under the ADA
  • December 26, 2011 | Author: Scott P. Inciardi
  • Law Firm: Foley & Lardner LLP - San Francisco Office
  • Is a severely overweight employee entitled to accommodation rights and discrimination protections under federal law or would the employee need to show that he or she suffered from an underlying disorder that caused the obesity? Although courts have disagreed on this issue, a federal court this month ruled that severe obesity qualifies as a disability under federal law.

    The case involved an employee with a severe weight problem. The employee, who supervised the employer's day care program, weighed more than 400 pounds when she was hired by the employer in 1999, and her weight later exceeded 500 pounds. In 2006, the employee received a performance evaluation rating her quality of work as “excellent.” Nevertheless, the employee claimed that in 2007 she was called into her supervisor's office and informed she was being terminated due to her “limited mobility” and concerns that she would have difficulty administering CPR. The employee filed a charge with the EEOC claiming that her termination violated the ADA (http://www.ada.gov/). The employee later died due to complications from morbid obesity, but the EEOC filed suit in a Louisiana federal district court against the employer on behalf of her estate.

    One of the principal issues in the case was whether the employee's severe obesity qualified as a disability under the ADA. The EEOC, citing its own compliance manual (http://tinyurl.com/pw7xx), argued that, while, in general, being overweight does not qualify as a disability, persons with “severe obesity” (defined by the EEOC as body weight more than 100 percent over the norm) are disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The employer disagreed and argued that the EEOC had to prove that the employee's obesity was caused by an underlying physiological condition (such as a cardiovascular, respiratory, or musculoskeletal ailment), not merely that she was severely obese.

    The District Court sided with the EEOC and held that the case could proceed to trial. The Court noted that some federal circuit courts of appeal required that an employee's obesity be caused by an underlying physiological condition in order to qualify as a disability and dismissed claims by obese plaintiffs who could not meet this standard. This Court, however, decided to follow the EEOC's approach and held that an employee suffers from a disability when he or she is severely obese, regardless of whether the employee can show that a physiological disorder caused the obesity.

    As noted above, some federal courts do hold severely overweight employees are not disabled unless they can show there is an underlying disorder that has caused them to be overweight. However, the EEOC continues to take the position that, when an employee's weight is outside the “normal” range (more than 100 percent of the norm) the employee is disabled regardless of whether there is an underlying physiological condition. The Louisiana District Court's decision (http://tinyurl.com/cbmc6qf) this month bolsters the EEOC's position.

    Employers fielding accommodation requests from overweight employees should be aware of this issue and consider consulting legal counsel in borderline cases.