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Is Obesity a Protected Disability Under the ADA?

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on August 11, 2016 6:58 AM

As America's waistline has gotten bigger, so too have the number of lawsuits that have asked the very important question: is obesity a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Well, the short answer is no, but the more lawyerly answer is "yes, practically."

Below we get into the weeds of obesity and its relationship with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What Is a "Disability"?

Rather than list disabilities accepted under the statute, the ADA gives a definition (hence the trouble). Under the Act, "disability" means "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual."

This broad definition neither excludes or includes obesity; and thus it is up to enterprising lawyers on the plaintiff's side to argue the facts for the employee, and for defense lawyers to argue against -- again, based on the facts specific to each case.

The Current Trend

As a whole (and perhaps because of the reality of weight in today's society) courts have been reticent to include obesity as a recognized disability under the ADA, except in those cases where the complaining employee was morbidly obese, or overweight but not because his own fault. Thus, persons who are simply heavier than the average will be unlikely to succeed on an ADA claim in court.

But as early as 1997, federal courts started to recognize that weight could be the basis of qualifying disability. A federal district court decision in New Hampshire stands out because a teacher successfully proved that she was fired in part because of her weight and because her students regarded her as less intelligent than her less heavy colleagues.

In another instance, the EEOC brought a case in a southern federal district court on behalf of a severely obese worker who was fired from his job. This was in 2010. Although that case ended in settlement, the EEOC declared that it wanted to "send a message" to employers. Message received.

Takeaways

Is obesity a recognized disability under the ADA? Technically, no. But good lawyering involves anticipating future potential battles, and any reasonable practitioner will tell you that obesity could affect the business bottom-line. So even if obesity isn't officially recognized, it has been used as a basis in forming court opinions -- so it may as well be.

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