Reclassification of Obesity Lends Weight to Federal Discrimination Lawsuits

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In June 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognized obesity as a disease.  Putting aside arguments within the medical community about the wisdom of classifying more than one-third of U.S. adults as ill, the AMA’s decision fuels legal arguments that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects obese individuals from discrimination based on their obesity.  This is a theory that courts have routinely rejected in the past unless the obesity was linked to a psychological disorder.  Generally, under the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees cannot discriminate against an employee on account of a “disability,” which is defined as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits” a major life activity of the employee, such as working.  See 42 U.S.C. §§ 12102(1)-(2), 12111(5).

Legal commentators anticipate that lawsuits predicated on the AMA’s decision will begin congesting the courts.  For example, in July, a Missouri man filed suit claiming that his employer fired him due to his severe obesity in violation of the ADA and other federal law.  According to his complaint, Joseph Whittaker alleges he was fired because he “had severe obesity, which is an impairment within the meaning of the ADA, and which [his employer] regarded as … an impairment.”  The employer allegedly claimed that Mr. Whittaker’s obesity made it difficult for him to walk—an essential part of his job as general manager of a car dealership.  In his court filing, Mr. Whittaker represented he was “able to perform the essential functions of his position … with or without accommodation.”

It is still far too early to tell how such lawsuits will fare and whether the AMA’s decision will have a substantial impact in court.  Outside of Washington, some state and local jurisdictions already prohibit discrimination based on weight and personal appearance, like the State of Michigan, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

We will continue to track these developments for our clients.

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