Magazine article Personnel Journal

Discrimination against the Obese Violates Rehab Act

Magazine article Personnel Journal

Discrimination against the Obese Violates Rehab Act

Article excerpt

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has affirmed a $100,000 jury verdict to an applicant denied a job by the Rhode Island Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals (MHRH) for violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because of her "morbid obesity." Section 504 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of handicap by federally funded entities.

MHRH operated the Ladd Center as a residential facility for retarded persons. Bonnie Cook worked at Ladd as an institutional attendant for the mentally retarded from 1978 to 1980, and again from 1981 to 1986. Her work record met MHRH's expectations.

In 1988, Cook (5 feet 2 inches tall, weighing more than 320 pounds) applied for a vacant position she had previously held at MHRH. A routine pre-hire physical exam found that Cook was "morbidly obese" (i.e., either more than twice her optimal weight or more than 100 pounds over her optimal weight), yet found no limitations on her ability to do the job for which she applied.

MHRH refused to hire Cook, asserting that Cook's morbid obesity compromised her ability to evacuate patients in case of an emergency and put her in greater risk of developing serious ailments.

Cook sued MHRH in federal district court, claiming that its refusal to hire her violated section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as Rhode Island state law.

A jury awarded Cook $100,000 in damages. The district court denied MHRH's post-trial motions, which sought to overturn the jury's verdict.

On appeal, the First Circuit found that section 504's perceived disability prohibition "can be satisfied whether or not a person actually has a physical or mental impairment."

To prevail on her perceived disability claim, Cook was required to show that: "(1) while she had a physical or mental impairment, it did not substantially limit her ability to perform major life activities, ..., or, alternatively that (2) she did not suffer at all from a statutorily prescribed physical or mental condition," but that MHRH "treated her impairment (whether actual or perceived) as substantially limiting one or more of her major life activities."

The court rejected MHRH's argument that morbid obesity is not a disability because it is a voluntary condition within the person's control. …

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