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Does an Employee's Obesity Qualify as a Disability?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 04, 2016 2:58 PM

You already know that you can't discriminate based on disability in your hiring process. And by now you should know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) sets out the disabilities covered by federal anti-discrimination laws, and whether the ADA applies to your business. What may be difficult is keeping track of who qualifies as a disabled employee.

For instance, is obesity a disability under the ADA? And if so, what qualifies as a reasonable accommodation? Here's what you need to know.

ADA Definitions

Under the ADA, a "disability" is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual." By those terms, it seems possible that obesity could substantially limit an employee's major life activities. But without express coverage, it's left to the Department of Labor to determine whether obesity is a qualified disability under the ADA.

Thus far, the DOL has only considered obesity as a disabling impairment in rare circumstances. Most courts have followed the department's lead, discounting ADA claims based on obesity, especially when the employee (or prospective employee) is not morbidly obese, or does not suffer from a corresponding physiological disorder causing him or her to be obese. Those that are simply heavier than average have had a hard time seeking reasonable accommodations under the ADA.

Obesity Claims

Some courts, however, have gone against that trend in recent years. Some state courts have found that morbid obesity does qualify as a disability under the ADA, and some federal courts have found in favor of former employees who were fired because of their size and weight. Keep in mind that present day disability can also include a history of having or being diagnosed with such an impairment. So if an employee's weight fluctuates (as it generally does), that may be no defense under the ADA.

Given the back and forth track record of obesity claims under the ADA, your best bet would be to avoid making hiring or firing decisions based on a person's size and weight unless he or she absolutely can't do the job, regardless of accommodations. And your best source of info on ADA claims based on obesity is an experienced employment law attorney. Contact one today.

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