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Severe Obesity is an ADA-Protected Impairment

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued an important opinion that may have expanded the class of disabled Americans protected by ADA regulations, reports

The case, which has since settled, involved a severely obese woman working at a home for those fighting chemical dependencies. Lisa Harrison worked as a prevention/intervention specialist at Resources for Human Development's Family House in Louisiana from 1999 until late 2007. She was terminated by RHD, despite supposedly being able to fulfill all of the essential functions of her position.

Though Harrison passed away in 2009, the EEOC continued the suit on her estate's behalf.

The settlement came shortly after the court issued an opinion rejecting a motion for summary judgment by RHD. The court stated that not only is severe obesity an ADA-protected impairment, but it is irrelevant whether the underlying cause of the disability is physiological or due to lack of willpower. The EEOC, on behalf of Harrison, had an expert testify that her obesity was physiological, but the court stated, "neither the EEOC nor the Fifth Circuit have ever required a disabled party to prove the underlying basis of their impairment."

What does this mean for employers? Employers must now treat severely obese employees as they do any other disabled employee. Severe obesity is defined as being more than 100% overweight. This means reasonable accommodations must be made if necessary, such as specialized equipment or medical leave.

It is important to remember that reasonable accommodations only go so far. Employees, disabled or not, must still be able to perform the essential functions of the job. If you, as an employer, are unsure if the requested accommodations are reasonable, or are unsure about terminating an employee with a protected disability, it is important to seek counsel with an attorney prior to making an employment decision.

As for the Resources for Human Development, they settled the case for $125,000 to Lisa Harrison's estate, plus retraining of their HR Department on federal disability law and three years of monitoring by the EEOC on any requests for reasonable accommodation.

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