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Discriminating Against Obese Employees

Court rules that severe obesity is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Key point 8-14.1. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision against a qualified individual with a disability who is able, with or without reasonable accommodation from the employer, to perform the essential functions of the job. Accommodations that impose an undue hardship upon an employer are not required. Religious organizations may give preference to nondisabled members of their faith over disabled persons who are members of a different faith.

A federal district court in Louisiana ruled that severe obesity is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A 400-pound woman (the "plaintiff") was hired to oversee a day care program for the children of mothers staying at a residential treatment facility for chemically dependent women and their children. Eight years later, the plaintiff was fired. At the time of her termination, she weighed 527 pounds. She filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that she had been terminated because her employer regarded her as disabled due to her obesity. The plaintiff died shortly after filing her complaint with the EEOC. Her death certificate listed the cause of death as "morbid obesity." Following her death, the plaintiff's estate continued her claim of discrimination.

The EEOC concluded that the plaintiff had severe obesity, which is a physical impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and that her employer regarded her as disabled because of it. As a result, the EEOC sued the employer, claiming that the plaintiff's termination was a violation of the ADA.

The court began its opinion by noting that "to prevail on an ADA claim, the EEOC must demonstrate that: (1) there is a disability within the meaning of the ADA, (2) the complaining party is a qualified individual with a disability, and (3) the complaining party suffered an adverse employment decision because of the disability. The threshold inquiry is whether or not a plaintiff has a disability within the meaning of the ADA."

Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities." An employee who is "regarded as having such an impairment" also meets the definition of "disabled," whether disabled or not.

The court quoted from the EEOC's ADA compliance manual:

[B]eing overweight, in and of itself, is not generally an impairment …. On the other hand, severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm, is clearly an impairment. In addition, a person with obesity may have an underlying or resultant physiological disorder, such as hypertension or a thyroid disorder. A physiological disorder is an impairment.

The court concluded that "a careful reading of the EEOC guidelines and the ADA reveals that the requirement for a physiological cause is only required when a charging party's weight is within the normal range. However, if an employee's is outside the normal range—that is, if the charging party is severely obese—there is no explicit requirement that obesity be based on a physiological impairment." The court noted that the plaintiff was severely obese; when she was hired she weighed in excess of 400 pounds, and when she was terminated, she weighed in excess of 500 pounds. In addition, she had multiple resulting disorders from her obesity, including diabetes, congestive heart failure, and hypertension.

The court concluded that the plaintiff was disabled, and that her employer violated the ADA by terminating her on account of her disability without any effort to reasonably accommodate her disability. In support of its decision, the court noted that, three months before her termination, she received a performance evaluation where she was rated as "excellent" in seven out of twelve areas, including "Quality of Work."

What This Means For Churches:

This case should serve as notice to churches that are subject to the ADA, or a state counterpart, that morbidly obese employees may be regarded as disabled. This means that a church may be liable for taking any adverse employment action (i.e., termination) against a morbidly obese employee, and may have a legal obligation to "accommodate" such a person's disability, so long as this would not impose an undue burden on the church. Our recommendation is that churches should not dismiss, demote, or take any other adverse employment action against morbidly obese employees without first consulting with legal counsel. E.E.O.C. v. Resources for Human Development, Inc., 2011 WL 6091560 (E.D. La. 2011).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, July/August 2012.

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