Philadelphia Employment Law News

U.S. District Court: Severe Obesity is an ADA Disability

Much like my waistline, the field of disabled Americans protected by the ADA may have just expanded to the severely obese, thanks to recent opinions by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, reports

Lisa Harrison worked as a prevention and intervention specialist at a facility that fought chemical dependencies, Family House in Louisiana, which is owned by Resources for Human Development. She was hired in 1999 and fired in late 2007, reportedly for being severely obese.

Harrison’s weight problem existed at the time she was hired and continued throughout her employment, though she was still able to carry out the essential tasks of her job. She passed away in 2009, yet the suit lives on thanks to the EEOC pressing forward on behalf of her estate.

The case seemed like it was going to come down to whether or not Harrison's obesity was a physiological issue, rather than a lack of willpower. The EEOC even called an expert witness to testify that her condition was physiological.

The court, frankly, did not give a damn. Their opinion stated that not only is severe obesity an ADA-protected impairment , but it is irrelevant whether the underlying cause of the disability is physiological or due to lack of willpower .

Now, employers must treat severely obese employees as they do any other disabled employee. Reasonable accommodations must be made if necessary, such as specialized equipment or medical leave. Severe obesity is defined as being more than 100% overweight .

However, reasonable accommodations only go so far. Employees, disabled or not, must still be able to perform the essential functions of the job. Employers are not required to undergo extreme hardships and keep nonproductive employees on the payroll.

If you, as an employer, are unsure if the requested accommodations are reasonable, or are unsure about terminating an employee with a protected disability, it is important to seek counsel with an attorney prior to making an employment decision.

As for Lisa Harrison's case against Resources for Human Development, it has now settled for $125,000 to her estate. RHD has also pledged to retrain its HR Department on federal disability law and allow the EEOC to monitor any requests for reasonable accommodation that they deny for the next three years.

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