Obesity as a Disability: What Does This Mean for Employers?

By October 3, 2012

By Michael T. Landen
According to the CDC, over one-third of American adults are obese.  As a result, it is not surprising that employers nationwide are seeing a rise in lawsuits and claims by obese employees who invoke the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming that their employers failed to provide reasonable accommodations for their “disability” in the workplace.
So, this begs the question: is obesity a disability?  It appears that the answer is shifting toward yes.
Recent decisions nationwide have found that an employee’s severe obesity constitutes a disability under the ADA.  For example, in the Texas case of EEOC v. BAE Systems, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged that BAE Systems violated the ADA by firing Ronald Kratz II because of his weight when he was unable to buckle himself into a forklift that he was required to drive to perform part of his essential job functions. The EEOC alleged that Kratz was able to perform the essential functions of his job but was denied a “reasonable accommodation.”  
In July of this year, the lawsuit settled with BAE paying Kratz $55,000 and providing him with six months of outplacement services.  BAE also agreed to provide training and written guidance to its managers and human resource professionals on EEOC compliance, disability discrimination laws and responsibilities concerning reasonable accommodations for employees.
Similarly, in EEOC vs. Resources for Human Development Inc., the EEOC sued a Louisiana-based non-profit in 2010, after Lisa Harrison was fired from her job as a prevention and intervention specialist working with children whose mothers were undergoing treatment for addiction.  Ms. Harrison passed away from obesity-related conditions in 2009, prior to the institution of the lawsuit.  In April of this year, the non-profit settled with the EEOC for $125,000.
Cases like these are causing employers to sit up and take notice.  With so many overweight Americans, and a shift in the law towards recognizing obesity as a disability under the ADA, employers need to evaluate current policies and procedures to determine how reasonable accommodations can be made for obese employees who qualify as disabled under the ADA.
Taking steps now to evaluate the practical realities of an employer’s workplace and creating policies and procedures for obesity-related accommodations can help employers avoid litigation in the future.