The US government has sued defense contractor BAE Systems Inc. alleging that the company fired an employee because he was morbidly obese and failed to accommodate him under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Ronald Kratz II, who weighed over 600 pounds, had worked in BAE's manufacturing location in Houston since 1994 and was fired in October 2009.
"This was just a bolt of lighting out of the blue," Kratz told ABC News. "Within an hour of my shift, my supervisor told me to see HR. I didn't know what it was for and they told me they were terminating me due to my weight. I had good evaluations I was doing a good job I did what I was supposed to do. They just said it was because of my weight."
The suit filed Tuesday states that a human resources official told him he could no longer perform his job duties as a material handler "because of his weight and he was therefore terminated."
The human resources official told him he could not be transferred into another position after Kratz, 42, inquired if that was a possibility, reported Houston's ABC affiliate KTRK.
Kratz, who has since lost over 200 pounds, has not been able to find another job since his termination. He told ABC News his wife financially supports he and his three daughters, after his unemployment benefits ended about one month ago.
Kratz said 90 percent of his job entailed typing on a computer at a desk. Otherwise, he said he counted and wrapped parts to prepare them for storage while standing, and he drove a forklift.
Kathy Boutchee, senior trial attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal employment law enforcement agency, said Kratz was instructed to wear a seatbelt that did not fit while he drove the forklift. He said he never received a seatbelt extender after requesting one and was fired about two weeks after that.
The EEOC suit accused BAE of violating the ADA by firing Kratz because of his disability, denying him employment opportunities, and failing to accommodate his disability.
Boutchee said the company "easily" could have reprimanded Kratz for not wearing a seatbelt or provided him a seatbelt extender, as required by law. She said an EEOC investigation found that other employees were driving forklifts without seatbelts.
Kelly Golden, BAE Systems spokeswoman, provided a company statement to ABC News.
"BAE Systems Inc. believes it acted lawfully in this matter and given that the issue is the subject of pending litigation it would not be appropriate to comment futher," the company said. "BAE systems takes pride in the diversity of the company and in supporting employees with disabilities."
BAE Systems Inc., headquartered in Arlington, Va., has 100,000 employees worldwide and offers products and services for air, land and naval forces, according to the company. Its parent company, BAE Systems PLC, is based in London.
The EEOC is demanding back wages, other "affirmative relief necessary to eradicate the effects of the unlawful employment practices to which he was subjected," compensatory damages for past and future losses from emotional pain and suffering, and punitive damages for BAE's "malicious and/or reckless conduct."
The suit claims Kratz was "qualified to perform the essential functions" of his position "with reasonable accommodation of his disability." The suit said BAE, however, "regarded Kratz's morbid obesity as substantially limiting him in the major life activities of, among others, walking, standing, kneeling, stooping, lifting and breathing."
The company replaced him with someone who was not morbidly obese, according to the suit.
Kratz's performance evaluations in 2008 and 2009 were "very good."
Boutchee said the agency became involved after Kratz filed a discrimination suit after he was fired.
"The company is supposed to engage in an interactive process," Boutchee said.
She said under the ADA, a company should discuss alternatives with an employee to accommodate a disability.
"They didn't do that," she said. "They decided his weight had become a hindrance in the workplace and he was fired."
Morbid obesity is usually characterized by being well in excess of an ideal body weight or by a high body mass index. Boutchee said because Kratz weighed in excess of 600 lbs. he would be "universally considered" to be morbidly obese.
Boutchee said EEOC suits involving morbid obesity are not common.
"I don't think people are aware morbid obesity could be considered a disability under the law," she said.
In September 2010, the agency filed a suit against nonprofit organization Resources for Human Development, Inc., for firing an employee because of her obesity, in violation of the ADA.
The case arose from the charge of a former employee, Lisa Harrison, who claimed she was fired her from a New Orleans facility because of her disability.
The EEOC alleges that, as a result of her obesity, the employer perceived Harrison as being "substantially limited" in major life activities, including walking. Harrison was able, according to the lawsuit, to perform all of the essential functions of her position. Before the EEOC filed suit, Harrison died. The suit is still pending, according to Boutchee.
Boutchee said Kratz' case could last 12 to 18 months if it is not resolved before trial.