Obesity as a Disability under the ADA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees with qualified disabilities from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace. A qualified disability under the law is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Such major life activities include hearing, seeing, speaking, breathing, walking, learning, or performing manual tasks. If an individual with such an impairment is able to perform the essential functions of a job, the company may not discriminate against them on the basis of their impairment. In a lawsuit claiming violation of rights under the ADA, the first inquiry will be into whether the individual has a qualified disability.
Is Obesity a Disability?
In a recent case, the plaintiff, Denise Luster-Malone, worked for Cook County’s Stroger Hospital for many years. Luster-Malone also weighed around 300 pounds and stated that her supervisor made several derogatory comments regarding her weight. In May of 2009, her supervisor said that Luster-Malone’s “big fat ass needs to concentrate on losing weight.” Later that year, she was fired and filed a lawsuit claiming she was terminated due to her obesity in violation of the ADA.
The court stated that obesity is only a qualified disability in very limited circumstances. First, the obesity must substantially limit one or more life activities. Though Luster-Malone had some trouble walking across the parking lot at work during the last year of her employment, the court found that was not a large enough impairment to qualify as a disability and for ADA protections.
Furthermore, the court found that in the months between her supervisor’s comments and her termination, Luster-Malone was under investigation for unethical practices at work. First, the hospital suspected that she submitted requests for overtime pay for hours that were not approved and that she had not actually worked. Second, when asked to transfer several files onto a flash drive, she returned the flash drive hours later with only a small portion of the files transferred, claiming she did not complete the task because she had to get food. The hospital stated she was fired after a disciplinary hearing regarding these incidents.
Though Luster-Malone claimed the hospital’s reasons for her dismissal were pretextual, the court disagreed and found the hospital did not violate the ADA. The court also found that while the supervisor’s comments were rude, rude or disrespectful comments do not necessarily violate employment laws.
Employees have many rights that should be protected, however sometimes employees file lawsuits after being terminated for very valid and legal reasons. Employers also deserve certain legal protections from unfounded claims by employees. If you need help defending a claim brought by an employee, the experienced employment law attorneys at HKM can help you. Do not hesitate to contact our office today.