Tag Archives: obesity

Is Obesity A Disability Under the ADA?

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb, March 15, 2019

Page with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) on the table with stethoscope

As with so many ADA questions, “it depends.” However, a pair of cases pending before the 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals (covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) could provide further guidance.

The 7th circuit has not definitively ruled on whether obesity alone is a “disability.” Federal appellate courts for the 2nd, 6th, and 8th circuits (covering NY, CT, and VT; KY, MI, OH, and TN; and AR, IA, MN, MO, ND, NE, and SD respectively) have all concluded obesity is not a disability unless it is linked to some other disabling condition. In the first of two pending appeals, the trial court reached the same conclusion, ruling that “severe obesity” alone is not a disability under the ADA. (Note, Michigan state law prohibits discrimination based on body weight and a handful of municipalities have passed similar measures.)

But, employers should proceed with caution. Obese employees have defeated motions for summary judgment by arguing their employers regarded them as disabled, and any adverse action taken on the basis of that perception violated the ADA. This is precisely what happened in the second case pending before the 7th circuit.

The plaintiff, who weighed 331 pounds and had a BMI of 47.5, was excluded from his position based on a policy forbidding anyone with a BMI over 40 from working in a safety sensitive role – a policy the employer argued was necessary because those with a BMI over 40 have a substantially higher risk of developing medical conditions which can cause sudden incapacitation or impairment.

The court denied summary judgment concluding it was unlawful to act on the belief that potential future disabilities pose a present safety risk. 

Best practices:

  • Remember the ADA’s statutory definition of “disability” includes those who have an impairment that substantially limits major life activities and those who are “regarded as having such an impairment.”
  • Ensure that all job qualifications – including those designed to ensure safety – are necessary and narrowly tailored to the requirements of the particular job at issue. 
  • Focus on the duties of the position. Can the applicant or employee perform the essential functions of the job safely? If not, could he with a reasonable accommodation? If the accommodation at issue is not particularly onerous, it may make sense to provide it despite uncertainty about whether the individual truly has a disability. An individual who cannot perform the essential functions of a position with or without reasonable accommodation is not a “qualified individual” and cannot sustain an action under the ADA. 
  • When in doubt, treat the individual, at least preliminarily, as if he has a disability. Don’t assume there are no medical conditions beyond excess body weight. Engage in an interactive process to determine whether the individual has a disability, and don’t take a final adverse action until the individual has had an opportunity to provide relevant facts, including evidence of a disability.

“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.