EEOC Extends ADA Protections to Employee Based on Weight

We have all heard the taglines and statistics regarding the obesity epidemic in this country.  Still, the plain reality is this: an increasing number of Americans are becoming overweight or obese.  A recent survey reports that 63.1% of adults in the U.S. were either overweight or obese in 2009 (of those, 36.6% were found to be overweight, and 26.5% were found to be obese).  This was nearly a one percent increase from 2008.

As obesity continues to gain prevalence, certain interesting legal questions have emerged.  Namely, can obesity constitute a “disability” such that the Americans with Disabilities Act might protect obese individuals from discrimination?

Recently, the EEOC says yes.  In EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, U.S. Dist. Crt., E.D. LA, No. 2:10-cv-03322, the EEOC filed suit on behalf of an obese child-care worker named Lisa Harrison who was fired from her job.  The EEOC claimed that Ms. Harrison’s firing occurred because the employer perceived her as being substantially limited in a number of major life activities, including walking, due to her weight.  The EEOC contended that despite her weight, Ms. Harrison could indeed perform all of the essential functions of her job.  As such, the EEOC argued that Ms. Harrison’s firing violated the ADA.

It remains unclear whether the EEOC’s stance will catch-on with the courts, which, historically, have resisted categorizing obesity as a disability.  Nonetheless, with this development, one cannot help but wonder whether, at some point in the not-so-distant future, obesity may join the rather exclusive list of protected categories in civil rights employment law.