A federal district court recently held that severe obesity is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, Inc., No. 10-3322 (E.D.La. Dec. 7, 2011), the employee weighed over 500 pounds at the time of her termination. The EEOC brought suit on the employee’s behalf, alleging that the employer violated the ADA by terminating her.

The employer filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that obesity did not qualify as a disability under the ADA. The court denied the motion. The ADA does not specifically address obesity, so the court relied on the language in the EEOC’s ADA compliance manual, which states: “being overweight, in and of itself, is not generally an impairment...On the other hand, severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm, is clearly an impairment.”

The court also held that there is no requirement that an employee’s obesity be based on a physiological impairment, such as a dysfunction of the metabolic system. A disabled employee is generally not required to prove the underlying basis for his or her impairment. “Voluntariness” is also irrelevant when determining whether a condition is an impairment. For example, the ADA applies to numerous conditions that may be caused or exacerbated by voluntary conduct, such as alcoholism, AIDS, diabetes, and cancer from cigarette smoking.

Other courts have reached different conclusions regarding whether obesity is a disability. One of these courts includes the Sixth Circuit, which governs Ohio. But many of these decisions occurred prior to 2008, when the ADA Amendments Act expanded the definition of a disability. Courts holding that obesity is not a disability may choose to revisit their earlier decisions in light of the recent amendments.

Bottom line for employers: Play it safe. If you want to keep the EEOC at bay, consider obese employees to be protected by the ADA.