The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently filed a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act, alleging that Resources for Human Development, Inc. (RHD) illegally fired an employee because of her obesity. The lawsuit is pending in federal district court in Louisiana.
According to the EEOC's press release, RHD employed Lisa Harrison as Prevention / Intervention Specialist, working with young children of mothers being treated for addiction. The EEOC claims that RHD perceived Harrison as being disabled because of her obesity, and that it fired her in September 2007 as a result. According to the EEOC, Harrison died before the lawsuit was filed, so her interests will be represented by her estate. The press release does not comment on how Harrison's inability to testify will affect the EEOC's case.
This case is particularly notable because Harrison's employment was terminated in September 2007, before the recent amendments greatly expanding the scope of the ADA took effect. Consequently, the EEOC will have to prove not only that RHD was aware of Harrison's physical impairment, but that those responsible for her termination believed that her impairment substantially limited her in one or more major life activities. If Harrison had been terminated after the amendments took effect, the EEOC would have to establish only that the decision makers knew of or believed that Harrison had a physical impairment, not that they had any specific believe as to the effect of that impairment on her life activities.
In light of the recent ADA amendments, employers can expect to see many more lawsuits from the EEOC and employees alleging discrimination based on actual or perceived conditions that previously may not have qualified as "disabilities." Because of this and similar efforts to expand the boundaries of other employment laws, employers must increasingly regard every termination or adverse employment action as a potential "high risk" situation, and take appropriate steps to ensure that they can defend themselves in the event of a lawsuit.