In September, one of my Memphis partners, Jeff Wientraub, wrote a good analysis of legal issues posed by obese workers in HR Professionals Magazine. While most employers state that an employees weight does not influence their employment decisions, I am not sure that statement is accurate,… and there are legitimate concerns about the employee’s ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job … but is this concern legally defensible?
Read too, my Atlanta partner, Myra Creighton’s August article about concerns raised by a claim and subsequent decision involving obesity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not painting individuals suffering from obesity as villains. But it is a fact that everyday more Americans join the ranks of the obese, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that this issue will not increasingly come up. See also my recent post on the need for serious Wellness efforts.
See also, the EEOC’s Press Release on an obesity-related settlement last Spring….
NEW ORLEANS – Resources for Human Development, Inc. (RHD), … The court-approved settlement 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 disability, severe obesity, even though 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. EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, Inc., — F. Supp. 2d —-, 2011 WL 6091560 (E.D. La. Dec. 2011) (“severe obesity qualifies as a disability under the ADA”). The court concluded that severe obesity may qualify as a disability regardless of whether it is caused by a physiological disorder, rejecting RHD’s argument to the contrary.
The EEOC had offered the expert testimony of a renowned obesity researcher that Harrison’s obesity was the result of a physical disorder or disease, and was not caused by lack of character or willpower. But the court reasoned that “neither the EEOC nor the Fifth Circuit have ever required a disabled party to prove the underlying basis of their impairment.”