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EEOC settles with nonprofit over firing of obese employee

EEOC settles with nonprofit over firing of obese employee

NEW ORLEANS—The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reached a $125,000 settlement with a nonprofit organization it had sued for disability discrimination in connection with the termination of an obese employee, the agency said Wednesday.

The EEOC had charged in its lawsuit in EEOC vs. Resources for Human Development Inc., which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans in September 2010, that the Philadelphia-based nonprofit human resources organization fired Lisa Harrison in September 2007 because of her severe obesity.

Ms. Harrison, who died in November 2009, was about 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed more than 400 pounds. According to a December ruling in the case, which dismissed RHD's motions for summary judgment, the official cause of Ms. Harrison's death was morbid obesity. Her death certificate also listed hypertension, diabetes and congestive heart failure as other “significant conditions contributing to death,” according to the ruling.

Ms. Harrison, who began employment with RHD in 1999 as a prevention/intervention specialist, had worked with young children of mothers undergoing treatment for addiction at an RHD facility that operated under the name Family House of Louisiana, in Terrytown, La.

In its ruling, the court said, “The overall issue in the instant case is why Harrison was terminated from Family House: Was it because she was regarded as disabled? Or was it because her obesity severely impaired her job performance? Defendant argues that her weight limited her job performance and that was the reason for her termination. Conversely, plaintiff asserts she was discriminated against due to perceived disability and that Family House failed to made ‘reasonable accommodations,' as required by the ADA. Since there is a genuine issue of material fact, summary judgment is inappropriate at this juncture.”

Jim Sacher, regional attorney of the EEOC's Houston district office, said in a statement, “Employers cannot rely on unfounded prejudices and assumptions about the capabilities of severely obese individuals. Despite performing her job for years, Ms. Harrison was terminated without warning and without any evidence that she could not perform the essential functions of her position. The case highlights the fact that severely obese people who can do their jobs are every bit as protected by the ADA as people with any other qualifying disability.”

RHD said in a statement, “As the majority of the individuals it serves have disabilities, RHD is particularly attuned to protecting the rights of people with disabilities, and actively fights discrimination against such individuals.

“RHD has consistently denied violating any laws. Because of RHD's mission and unwavering support of the (ADA Amendments Act of 2008) and the ADA before that, RHD willingly agreed to take additional steps to ensure the prevention of any form of disability or other discrimination at any of its facilities, including more detailed policies, reporting procedures and training.

“The settlement of this case on these terms was consistent with RHD's long-term commitment to people with disabilities and the laws that protect them, and was entered into solely to avoid the expense and distraction of further litigation proceedings.”

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