“Severe Obesity” Protected Under the ADA? YES!

Contributed by Jeff Risch

Resources for Human Development, Inc. (RHD), doing business as Family House of Louisiana, a treatment facility for chemically dependent women and their children, will pay $125,000 to settle a disability discrimination suit filed in September 2010 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

A U.S. district court in Louisiana approved settlement in a case that resolves the charge of Lisa Harrison, who worked as a prevention/intervention specialist at RHD’s Family House facility in Louisiana from 1999 until she was fired in September of 2007.  In its suit, the EEOC charged that RHD violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it fired Harrison because of her alleged disability, severe obesity (weighing 527 pounds at time of discharge), even though she was able to demonstrate that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job.  Before the EEOC filed suit, Harrison died.

During the litigation, the court denied both of the defendant’s motions for summary judgment in an order holding that severe obesity is an impairment within the meaning of the ADA.  The court concluded that severe obesity may qualify as a disability regardless of whether it is caused by a physiological disorder or lack of will-power

Under the court-ordered consent decree settling the suit, which was entered on April 10, 2012, by Judge Ivan Lemelle (EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, Inc., d/b/a Family House of Louisiana, Case No. 2:10-cv-03322 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana), the company will provide annual training on federal disability law to all human resources personnel and corporate directors of RHD nationwide.  RHD will also report to the EEOC for three years on all complaints of disability discrimination and all denials of a request for reasonable accommodation of a disability.  RHD will also name a children’s room at the Family House facility, and permanently install a memorial plaque, in honor of Harrison, who taught at the facility for almost eight years.

Employers throughout the U.S. should pay careful attention to its practices, policies and training systems to better manage and control the influx of disability related charges and lawsuits. Remember, employees need not use the words “accommodation” when they need assistance in performing their essential job functions.  It is vital that employers proactively recognize the potential issues involved with medical conditions of any nature that may cause poor performance or inappropriate behavior.  Employers need to document the interactive reasonable accommodation process in such scenarios, and then demonstrate that such process has been exhausted prior to taking adverse action against the employee.