The question of whether obesity meets the definition of a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) has received significant play over the past few years. The issue first emerged in 2011 when the EEOC filed suit on behalf of the estate of a very obese woman who was terminated from her employment with a long term residential treatment facility for chemically dependent women. Lisa Harrison had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC claiming her termination was as a result of the defendant “regarding” her as disabled due to her obesity. She passed away shortly after the termination; the cause of death was listed as “morbid obesity” and also listed hypertension, diabetes and congestive heart failure as significant conditions contributing to her death. The EEOC filed a Motion for Summary Judgment in 2012 requesting that the court find as a matter of law that it had established a prima facie case of disability. The court found that Lisa Harrison was indeed “disabled” under the ADA.
In August 2013 the American Medical Association announced a change in the classification of obesity from a “condition” to a disease, further opening the door to possible claims by employees under the ADA. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one third of Americans fall under the definition of obese, 30 pounds over the recommended weight for their age, gender and weight. Claims under the ADA include discrimination (failing to hire or promote), harassment (disparaging comments about weight) and failure to accommodate (different furniture, time off).
Now, a Missouri federal judge just last week denied the motion to dismiss of a car dealership whose former employee claimed he was fired for his weight. The court found that the employee had produced sufficient evidence that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Attorneys for the company had moved to dismiss the case, arguing that obesity was not a disability and citing language from an EEOC guidance stating that “except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment.”
The court rejected that argument, reminding the litigants that the lanuguage at issue predated the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, which “rejected the unduly restrictive approach” to determining whether a plaintiff suffered from a disability. The judge refused to dismiss the case because “plaintiff has sufficiently pled a claim that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.”
Employers should keep these developments in mind when making employment related decisions concerning employees who might meet the AMA definition of obese.