Is an employee's obesity an ADA disability?

by on January 7, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Defining a disability under ADA guidelines

The chair across HR director Violet Aston’s desk creaked as Greg Weiss sat down in it. He must weigh 400 pounds, Violet thought.

“Look, I’ve tried really hard, and I just can’t lose the weight,” Greg said. “My doctor says it’s the meds I’m taking for my hormonal imbalances.”

“That’s too bad,” Violet said. “But if you can’t slim down, you can’t keep doing the overhead lineman job. The equipment is rated for a load of 275 pounds, and it’s just not safe to have somebody heavier than that up there.”

Greg frowned. “You could get ladders and belts with a higher weight tolerance,” he said.

“That would cost a fortune, and, frankly, not many of the linemen would need them,” Violet said firmly. “I think we should look in another direction. There’s a phone-answering job open in
the downstate office. Why don’t you put in for it?”

Rejects alternative job
“I don’t have any indoor experience,” Greg said. “I wouldn’t be good at a job like that. Is that the best you can do?”

“Yes, it is,” she said, trying to hide growing irritation. “There’s nothing else available. We’ll give you two weeks, and then you can either take the downstate job or look for other employment.”

Greg rose to his feet. “I’m tired of people treating me like a second-class citizen because of my weight,” he growled.
“I’ve got a disability here, and you’re using it to get rid of me instead of finding a way I can keep
doing a job I’m good at. I’ll sic the law on you.”

Greg was terminated two weeks later, and he filed an ADA lawsuit for disability discrimination.

Did he win?

ADA Law… If You Were The Judge

No, Greg didn’t win his disability discrimination lawsuit. The court ruled that he wasn’t disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Greg’s obesity got in the way of his work as a lineman, but it didn’t stop him from performing a broad range of jobs, the court found. A physical condition that disqualifies somebody from doing only a specific job or two doesn’t rise to the level of a disability.

An ADA disability, under the law, must substantially interfere with a “major life activity” like working, eating, walking, breathing or caring for oneself.

Because Greg wasn’t disabled, the company wasn’t obliged to provide any accommodation. Indeed, HR director Violet went above and beyond the call of duty when she offered to help him transfer to a job where his weight wouldn’t be an issue.

What’s the cause?
But how about if Greg had been hindered in performing a major life activity, like walking, would his obesity then have met the ADA disability definition?

Maybe, maybe not. In general, obesity qualifies as an ADA disability only when it has a specific physical cause – like endocrine problems.

ADA Guidelines for managers

If an obese employee comes to you asking for a job accommodation, first send him or her to a doctor for an analysis of the cause.

Cite: Greenberg v. BellSouth
Telecommunications, No. 06-15134,
11th Cir., 9/10/07. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

Issue 6.7 DOP 10-22-07

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