Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Is Obesity a Disability?

“Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years,” reports the Centers for Disease Control. Indeed, while the rates of other diseases like cancer, heart disease, or HIV have stayed roughly the same or even decreased over the past three decades, rates of obesity have skyrocketed. The CDC now estimates that more than one-third of American adults are obese. With obesity rates so high, it is likely that someone you work with suffers from obesity. 

Obesity raises a series of health risks. Obese people may have difficulty walking, going up stairs, or performing other tasks that might be necessary in the workplace. Which raises the question: is obesity a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? 

The ADA prohibits discrimination against employees who are disabled. An employee is considered disabled if he or she:

  • Has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity;
  • Has a history of a disability; or
  • Is perceived as having a disability. 

A law passed in 2009 requires the definition of a disability to be construed broadly. Many illnesses have been classified as disabilities under the ADA, including cancer, AIDS, and ALS. Is obesity among them?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) believes that it should be. The EEOC, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, has filed lawsuits against employers for taking negative actions against employees because of their obesity. Some courts have also ruled that obesity is a disease covered by the ADA. Last year, a judge in Missouri ruled that an employee’s “extreme obesity” could constitute a disability under the ADA, and that his employer could have violated the ADA by firing him due to his inability to walk. 

So, is obesity considered a disability under the ADA? As of now, it is hard to say. While the EEOC believes that it should be, few courts have endorsed this position. Despite this, employers should probably treat obesity as a disability covered by the ADA. As I discussed last week, the EEOC has been extremely aggressive in enforcing federal employment laws. It has often stretched the definition of who is covered by federal labor law in its zeal to protect the worker. Additionally, obesity could be a symptom of an underlying condition that separately meets the definition of disability.

Therefore, we recommend that employers refrain from taking negative action against an employee due to an employee’s obesity, or the symptoms of the obesity. Employers should avoid firing or disciplining an employee because he cannot walk, bend, or perform some task because of his weight or body size. Employers should also try to make reasonable accommodations to the workplace to make it easier for obese employees to perform their jobs. Contact an experienced attorney for more information.