Do all severely obese employees have a disability? If you don’t think so, you may have to change your way of thinking.

That’s because the EEOC just won a landmark settlement of $125,000 from an employer that fired a quarter-ton employee, citing her “limited mobility.”

In the past, a number of courts have ruled that obesity is an ADA disability only when caused by an underlying condition, like a hormonal disorder.

‘Severely’ obese
But in this case, a federal court in Louisiana agreed with the EEOC that any employee who is severely obese – defined as weighing more than double the norm – is disabled and thus is entitled to reasonable accommodations.

The employee in question weighed 400+ pounds when she was hired in 1999 by the employer, an addiction treatment center. Eventually, her weight topped 500 pounds, and in 2007 the employer fired her, citing her limited ability to move around and concerns that she would not be able to perform CPR if a client needed it.

Able to do the job
She later died of complications from morbid obesity, and the EEOC sued for disability discrimination on behalf of her estate. The EEOC said she was disabled because of her excessive weight, and yet she was capable of performing her essential job functions.

The court rejected the employer’s argument that obese people have a disability only when they have specific physical conditions. The employer agreed to the settlement.

Takeaway: HR probably doesn’t want to get into “measurement wars” where you quibble over what normal weight is and by how much a given employee exceeds it. So be prepared to discuss accommodations for severely obese employees who need them.

Cite: EEOC v. Resources for Human Development Inc.

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