The Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") provides that employers covered by the statute may not discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability with respect to employment matters. A person making a claim under the ADA, then, must show that she has a disability, that she is otherwise qualified to do the job, and that the matter as to which he complains (i.e., discharge, demotion, etc.) happened because of her disability. Consequently, a substantial amount of the litigation of ADA claims revolves around the question of whether the plaintiff has a "disability," as that term is defined in the statute.
One type of claimed disability that is increasingly the subject of litigation is obesity. Although courts initially were reluctant to recognize obesity as a qualifying disability for purposes of ADA protection, courts are increasingly willing to consider obesity as a disability giving plaintiffs status to raise ADA claims.
ADA Defines Disability
The ADA defines "disability" as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual." Disability also includes a record of having such an impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment. The statute, then, by its terms neither expressly includes nor excludes obesity. The implementing regulations, promulgated by the Department of Labor, suggest that obesity is not supposed to be considered a disabling impairment except in rare circumstances. Courts, accordingly, tended to discount ADA claims based on obesity, and many still do, particularly when all that is presented is a plaintiff who is not morbidly obese, or who does not suffer from a physiological disorder causing her to be obese, or one who is simply heavier than average.
Obesity ADA Claims
Increasingly, however, courts are taking ADA claims based on obesity more seriously. In a 1993 case arising out of Rhode Island, for example, the federal court concluded that, although simple obesity probably would not qualify, morbid obesity caused by a physiological disorder would be a disability entitling the plaintiff to ADA protection. The court's finding was premised on the fact that the disorder was permanent, and that the claimant's weight gain was not meaningfully voluntary.
A 1997 decision of the federal district court in New York agreed that morbid obesity could be a qualifying disability, although it denied the plaintiff's claim because she could not demonstrate that her obesity substantially limited her ability to work. In 1996, the federal district court in New Hampshire held that a teacher had adequately stated a claim under the ADA when she alleged that she had been fired because of her weight and the evidence reflected student perceptions based on her size that she was less intelligent.
The federal district court in Pennsylvania, in 1997, awarded damages to a fired employee when he was able to show that his former manager had made derogatory comments about his weight. And a 1996 Texas decision found that a bus company had improperly decided not to hire an obese woman as a driver because the company could not demonstrate that her obesity would prevent her from performing the necessary functions of the job.
In 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleged violation of the ADA in its lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Louisiana on behalf of a severely obese worker who was terminated. The EEOC, suing on behalf of the worker who died before the lawsuit was filed, announced its intention to send a message to employers that the agency viewed the termination as a classic case of disability bias. After unsuccessful attempts to have the case dismissed, the employer agreed to pay a settlement to the worker's estate.
On the other hand, a railroad that revoked an offer to hire a worker whose body mass index exceeded the permitted amount for safety-sensitive positions was not discriminating on account of a disability, according to a 2016 decision by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court rejected the plaintiff's claim that he was disabled or perceived as disabled and found that obesity, even morbid obesity, refers to physical characteristics that are not considered impairments unless there is an associated physiological disorder.
With this mixed history, when dealing with obese employees, it is important that employers not make employment decisions based solely on the obesity unless it is clear that the obese person simply cannot perform the necessary functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations that would not pose an undue burden on the employer. While not everyone who is overweight will be able to make an ADA claim in response to an adverse employment-related decision, the courts are increasingly recognizing such claims.