Case Study: Does Weight Constitute a Disability?

Susan J. applied for a position as a licensed practical nurse at County Memorial Hospital. She had generated an impressive record during her training, possessed good references from prior employment in two different private duty situations, and interviewed well. Susan was clearly very heavy. Helen Harding, the Director of Nursing at County Memorial, estimated her weight to exceed 300 pounds. An ideal weight for her five foot five inch body was 125 to 130 pounds. A reasonable weight range for someone of that height was 120 to 140 pounds. After the interview, Helen extended a tentative offer of employment to Susan. The offer was contingent on passing the hospital?s pre-employment physical examination.

The County Hospital employee health physician examined Susan but declined to approve her for employment unless she could first achieve a safer weight, in her case less than 275 pounds. Susan failed to get the job because of her overweight condition. She then filed a complaint with the State Division of Human Rights charging discrimination based on disability, citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. She claimed that her only responsibility was to demonstrate that she was capable of doing the job, and that in spite of her physical handicap she could still adequately perform all required duties of the job. Her obesity, she claimed, was due to a medical condition over which she had no control.

County Hospital moved for dismissal of the complaint on three grounds. First, it argued that obesity was not a true physical impairment under the law. Second, it claimed that Susan?s condition resulted from her own voluntary actions. Finally, the hospital claimed that she could reduce and control her weight if she so chose.

How might the foregoing situation be resolved? Is obesity truly a disability, or will a different argument prevail? Do you believe that the hospital will be successful in getting the complaint dismissed, or will Susan successfully persuade the Division of Human Rights to act on her complaint? Why?