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Federal court confirms severe obesity is a disability, cont.

We are continuing our discussion of a recent employment law case. A federal court decided the case in favor of the employee, agreeing that severe obesity qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up the case after the claimant's death.

The employee was obese when the company hired her, and she gained weight during her tenure. Nevertheless, she received stellar performance evaluations. It came as a surpise when, about a year later, the employer fired her. The company said her "limited mobility" had become an issue, and it expressed some concern that, if the occasion arose, she would not be able to perform CPR on the children in her care.

For the employer, the case hinged on why obesity would be classified as a disability. The company said -- as other companies have said before -- that obesity can only be considered a disability if it is caused by an underlying medical condition.

The ADA specifically defines impairment as follows:

[A]ny physiological disorder, or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genito-urinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin and endocrine.

Because the obesity was not caused by any physiological disorder, the company said, the employee should not prevail.

The EEOC argued that the law does not address obesity specifically; as a result, the EEOC was left to determine if weight -- a physical characteristic -- would be a disability.

And so it did. In EEOC guidance documents, overweight does not qualify, but severe obesity does.

If the parties do not settle, the case will go to trial.

Source: HRMorning.com, "Severe obesity as a disability: New ADA trend?" Dan Wisniewski, Dec. 29, 2011

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