WILL OBESITY BE CONSIDERED A DISABILITY UNDER THE ADA?

by Adair Melinsky Buckner on Sep. 23, 2013

Employment Employment  Employee Rights Employment  Employment Discrimination 

Summary: Obesity may be considered a disability under the ADA

WILL OBESITY BE CONSIDERED A DISABILITY UNDER THE ADA
There’s a new issue for employers to struggle with now. Early this summer the American Medical Association (AMA) officially determined that obesity is a disease. That leads to the inevitable next question for employers subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (those with 15 or more employees): Is obesity a disability, considering all of the ramifications that flow from that possibility? Then all shades of other questions pop up, such as “how overweight must a person be to qualify  as ‘obese’”; “how does an employer determine whether an employee is obese enough to require accommodations in job performance”; and “what accommodations might be required to allow him or her to perform the essential functions of the job?”     

Should EEOC Consider Obesity a Disability?

Earlier this year, the EEOC pursued a charge under the ADA earlier for an employee who weighed 680 pounds, claiming he was fired because he was “morbidly obese.” The claim was settled prior to trial, so we received no guidance on how a court might rule on the issue.  

Have any Private Lawsuits Been Filed Claiming Obesity as a Disability?

A lawsuit has now been filed in Missouri by an employee claiming he was fired because of his weight, making the same allegations of ADA violations, based on “severe obesity” being a disability. He alleges his severe obesity falls within the physical impairment definition of the ADA, and that he was considered by his employer as substantially limited in walking, which is a major life activity. He says that, despite his obesity, he was able to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without accommodation.  

HR Issues with Handling Obese Employees

The result of this case may provide employers new guidance on how obese employees must be dealt with under the ADA. I can see additional issues over wellness programs that adversely impact seriously obese employees, HIPAA issues about inquiries relating to obesity, and a Pandora’s box of other issues.    

We will watch and see what develops!

To learn more about Adair and her practice visit her profile page and her Labor & Employment Law page.

image courtesy of vorakorn / freedigitalphotos.net

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