Not too long ago the (EEOC) Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against an organization for a violation of the (ADAAA) Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act.
The action was taken to benefit and protect the ADA rights of a severely obese employee.
The employee Lisa Harrison weighed 400 pounds when she was hired. Obviously her boss believed she was qualified for the position.
She was assigned to a day care center for chemical dependent women as well as their children. At 5 feet 2 inches and weighing in excess of 400 pounds she rated excellent in the majority of areas in her employee performance appraisal.
This also included the quality of her work. At the time of her firing she weighed in excess of 500 pounds. While maintaining she had no disability she claimed her employer regarded her as being disabled and filed a complaint with the EEOC. She believed her termination was based on her bosses perception of her being disabled.
unfortunately, Ms. Harrison died of “morbid obesity” after the charge of ADA violation was filed. Nevertheless, the EEOC took up the cause and filed a lawsuit against Resources for Human Development for Lisa Harrison’s estate. The EEOC enlarged on Ms. Harrison’s original charge that being severely obese equated to being qualified as an impairment under ADA guidelines. Resources for Human Development made the case EEOC requirements clearly ruled out obesity as an “impairment” and requested the claim be dismissed.
Court decisions have been a mixed bag of judgments because there is no federal protection against obesity discrimination. Ms. Harrison was fired before the ADAAA became law. This meant the definition of what a “disability” is was still subject to the previous ADA. The most important issue was did Lisa Harrison have a qualifying disability? For the EEOC lawsuit to be successful it must demonstrate Ms. Harrison had;
(1) mental or physical impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities
(2) record of such an impairment
(3) been regarded as having such an impairment
The courts have also been in conflict over whether an employee proving obesity is;
(1) a consequence of a fundamental physiological ailment
(2) substantially limits a major life activity
If the EEOC could show Ms. Harrison had the qualifications to perform her job it would need to also prove her termination was due to her perceived, actual and recorded disability. According to the EEOC’s interpretive guide a condition of being overweight is by itself not an impairment. However, “severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm, is clearly an impairment.” As previously stated the EEOC interpretative guide states an obese individual could have a fundamental or underlying physiological disorder that would be an impairment.
The court hearing this case decided being severely obese is a disability according to ADA guidelines. It also concluded no proof was required to show a physiological foundation. The court defined a physiological reason is relevant only when the individuals weight is in a normal range. Thus the court’s decision was Ms. Harrison being “severely obese” by employer perception or actually obese substantially limited one or more major life activities.
Ms. Harrison’s employer believed her severe obesity was negatively impacting her job performance. Ms. Harrison believed her severe obesity was the reason she was fired noting a funding agency believed her mobility to be limited. The court identified adequate proof;
— there was a real issue about whether she was fired because of her weight
— her employer, Resources for Human Development considered her to be disabled
Because of this Lisa Harrison’s former employers request to dismiss the case was denied. The EEOC was given the green light to move forward with the lawsuit.
One of the most beneficial aspects of the revised ADAAA is that employees need not actually have a physical or mental disability to receive ADAAA protection. The employee doesn’t have to be limited in being able to perform any major life activity for employers to get in trouble. If the employer regards the employee as disabled and discriminates against the individual because of inaccurate perceptions, biases or stereotypes the result may be an ADA lawsuit.
Employers and employees should always look at the ability to do the job not how the individual is perceived or regarded as being disabled.
EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, No. 2:10-cv-03322 (E.D. L.A.)
Please review this excellent infographic. It’s provided courtesy of Compliance and Safety. It focuses on the cost being overweight in the workplace.
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