400lb Plaintiff Discrimination Suit Upheld

April 4, 2002 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - In a case involving a 400lb woman with a genetic metabolic disorder, New Jersey Supreme Court justices for the first time recognized morbid obesity as a handicap under state law, according to the New Jersey Law Journal.

The state high court ruled unanimously that Regina Vicsik, a former billing clerk, had presented enough testimony about her weight-related ailments to prove that she should be protected by New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. Vicsik was fired after four days at a Union, New Jersey company.

“According to her expert, she is morbidly obese, that is, suffering from disease or pathology as a result of her obesity, and her obesity-based arthritis, heart condition and obstructive lung disease are clearly ‘physical infirmities’ under the first prong of the physical handicap test,” wrote Justice Virginia Long.

Long said Vicsik had also presented evidence that she had suffered from the metabolic disorder since birth and that it directly caused her weight-related problems.

Case Background

Vicsik, was fired in July 1998 as a billing clerk at Fowler Equipment Company, a laundry equipment sales company, for what the company claimed was poor work ethic and for using the company phones for personal matters.

Vicsik, who is 5-feet-9-inches tall, had arthritis in her hips and knees, restricted lung capacity and depression brought on by the weight, and asthma and bronchitis that were “complicated” by her size.

A key part of her work was contacting technicians in the field via a fax machine and a two-way radio that were located in the same building though at “some distance” from Vicsik’s desk. She told a supervisor during her second day of work that her weight and her ailments kept her from moving quickly around the office and sometimes forced her to use a cane.

Supervisor Joyce Killmer, who told Vicsik she was fired, testified she was told to do so after reporting to Helene Fowler, the owner’s wife and office administrator, that Vicsik had difficulty standing while waiting for someone to train her in retrieving faxes.

Despite having upheld Vicsik’s right to sue, justices also threw out $140,000 in damages and fees because the trial judge improperly told the jury that the company had a duty to accommodate her illness.

The case is Vicsik v. Fowler Equipment Company, A-38-01.