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EEOC Sues Claiming Severely Obese Employee was Disabled under the ADA

Written by Martha Zackin

On September 30, 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) filed a lawsuit against a non-profit social services agency, claiming that the agency had discriminated against an employee on the basis of her disability—severe obesity.  The lawsuit, EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, Inc., is believed to be the first case ever filed by the EEOC in which it asserts that obesity is a covered disability under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”).

The ADA, of course, prohibits discrimination against a qualified employee or applicant with a “disability” provided he or she can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.  Under the law, a person is “disabled” if he or she:

  • has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (including, for example, caring for oneself, walking, bending talking, seeing, hearing, communicating or working);
  • has a history of a disability; or
  • is perceived as having a disability

The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which went into effect on January 1, 2009, specifically provides that the term “disability,” as used in the ADA, “shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals under [the ADA], to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of [the ADA].”

Although the alleged discrimination at issue in the Resources for Human Development lawsuit occurred prior to the enactment of the ADAAA, the case appears designed to test the limits of the ADAAA’s directive favoring broad coverage. The EEOC’s complaint in the Resources for Human Development case asserts that it terminated an employee, Lisa Harrison, because of her severe obesity in violation of the ADA. The complaint asserts that Ms. Harrison was able to perform the essential function of her job, but that, because of her severe obesity, Ms. Harrison’s employer regarded her as impaired in several major life activities, including her ability to walk.

The EEOC's complaint against Resources for Human Development is a model in brevity.  The complaint does not describe Ms. Harrison’s job duties; it does not state whether she had been obese when hired in 1999 or why, after eight years of employment, she was suddenly terminated in 2007.

Federal courts require a complaint to set forth more than a threadbare recital of the elements of the claim.  Instead, a plaintiff must state some facts to set the context, to show that there is more than a remote possibility of misconduct.  In other words, a plaintiff must present a story to the court so that the court, relying on its judicial experience and common sense, may conclude that the plaintiff stands a chance of proving her claims and entitlement to relief.

In this case, the EEOC alleges only that Ms. Harrison had a disability covered by the ADA, that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job, and that she was terminated because of her disability.  That’s it.  The complaint fails to set forth a single fact beyond the essential elements of a disability claim. Consequently, Resources for Human Development may seek to have the EEOC’s complaint dismissed on its face, and that may require the EEOC to amend its complaint to provide more information.  In any case, hopefully we will eventually learn more about the basis for EEOC’s complaint and where it would draw the line on when obesity becomes an ADA-protected disability.   With adult obesity rates at more than 25% in the United States and growing, this will be an interesting case to watch develop.

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David Barmak

Member / Chair Emeritus, Employment, Labor & Benefits Practice

David Barmak is an experienced trial lawyer at Mintz who focuses his practice on employment law and HR issues. He litigates cases in federal and state courts and arbitrations across the country. David counsels clients on compliance and employee relations issues and risk reduction options.