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Costly Assumption About Disabilities

Newsletter • volume 1 • number 11

The Rhode Island Department of Mental Health, Retardation, and Hospitals (MHRH) recently lost a discrimination lawsuit to the tune of $100,000. Why? Because the Department made the assumption that an obese woman was disabled and thus would not be able to perform the job for which she had applied.

The women is Bonnie Cook who stands 5'2" tall and weighed over 320 pounds when she applied for the position of institutional attendant for the mentally retarded. Although Ms. Cook had a satisfactory work record during two previous periods of employment with MHRH, they refused to hire her. The Department felt her obesity would hinder her ability to evacuate patients in case of an emergency, put her at high risk of absenteeism, and make her more likely to suffer a work-related injury.

Ms. Cook sued MHRH for disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act (which applies to Federal contractors) and a jury made the award. The MHRH appealed, arguing that Cook's "illness" was the result of voluntary conduct (overeating) and her "disabled" condition would disappear if she lost weight. But the appeals court upheld the jury's verdict, ruling that the MHRH acted unlawfully by considering Ms. Cook as disabled and then discriminating against her based on that perception.

Employers start down a treacherous road when they assume that someone can't do a job because of a real or perceived disability. Keep in mind that the purpose of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act is to give disabled people a chance to prove what they can do. Always focus on actual job requirements and carefully consider whether the applicant can meet those requirements with or without reasonable accommodation. And when you decide not to hire someone, be sure to document the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for your decision.