Court Upholds Obesity as ADA-Protected

In September 2010, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lisa Harrison of Louisiana, who it claimed was fired because of her obesity in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — EEOC v. Resources for Human Development Inc.

Harrison had worked for Resources for Human Development, a long-term residential treatment facility for chemically dependent women and their children, as a prevention-intervention specialist, and her job included overseeing a daycare program for children. The company terminated Harrison in September 2007. In October 2007, Harrison filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging she was terminated because the company regarded her as disabled because of her obesity. Harrison died in 2009, with “morbid obesity” listed as her official cause of death, and the EEOC filed a lawsuit in 2010 on her behalf.

The EEOC alleged the company terminated Harrison in violation of the ADA because severe obesity is a physical impairment under the ADA, and the company regarded her as disabled because of her obesity.

In a December 2011 ruling, the district court denied the company’s motion for summary judgment on the EEOC’s claims. Relying on the EEOC’s former Compliance Manual, Section 902 — which has been superseded by the ADA Amendment Act — the court found severe obesity, defined as a body weight of more than 100 percent over the norm, is an impairment without any requirement to prove an underlying physiological basis for the obesity.

Applying to Harrison this definition of severe obesity, the court noted Harrison was obese at all relevant times during her employment, as she weighed 400 pounds when she was hired and 527 pounds when she was fired eight years later.

The court next determined the EEOC raised a genuine factual dispute as to whether Harrison was a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA. The court found that at all relevant times she was severely obese.

Further, the court found Harrison was disabled at all relevant times, as she suffered from diabetes and heart problems. The EEOC also provided evidence that Harrison’s supervisor noted her “weight was clearly having an adverse impact on her ability to do her job.” In her EEOC intake questionnaire, Harrison stated her supervisor “terminated me for the reason of weight. She stated our funders Jefferson Parish said I had limited mobility.”

Accordingly, the court found the EEOC presented sufficient evidence to raise a genuine dispute with respect to whether the company perceived Harrison as having an impairment within the meaning of the ADA.

In a ruling in February 2012, the district court denied the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on whether the company regarded Harrison as substantially limited in major life activities, the prima facie case of disability discrimination and the cause of Harrison’s termination.

After the court’s February 2012 ruling, the parties settled for $125,000. The key lessons from this case are that while the employee was probably morbidly obese when hired, that did not preclude a morbid obesity claim. Diversity leaders should not assume otherwise. The supervisor focused on weight in terms of performance. Supervisors need to avoid false causes and focus strictly on performance metrics.

Jonathan Segal is a partner at law firm Duane Morris in Chicago. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.