Is Obesity a Disabilty Under The ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which was passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. The protections of the ADA apply only to those individuals who meet the definition of “disabled” under the Act. A person is considered disabled if he or she either actually has, or is thought to have, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits what the ADA calls a “major life activity.”

In many cases, the issue of whether an employee has an impairment that qualifies is clear cut. For example, an employee who is deaf without question has a physical impairment that would require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation. However, when limitations of the impairment are not self-evident, the determination as to whether it substantially limits a major life activity is generally left to administrative or judicial pronouncement.

One area that has recently garnered significant attention is whether severe or morbid obesity can constitute a disability that triggers the protections of the ADA. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 38 percent of the adult population in the United States can be classified as mildly to severely obese. In addition to the physical limitations associated with increased body weight, obesity is also associated with health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and increased risk for certain types of cancer.  There is no doubt that the morbidities associated with obesity can significantly interfere with an individual’s ability to perform his or her job.

Court Decisions
While the physical and health limitations brought on by obesity may be significant, the ADA itself does not identify obesity as a disability. However, a handful of recent judicial and administrative decisions may signal a trend toward increased recognition that obesity is indeed a disability under the ADA.

In EEOC v. BAE Systems, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged that BAE Systems, a Texas-based company, violated the ADA by firing an employee who was so overweight that he was unable to buckle himself into a forklift that he was required to operate as part of his core job duties. The EEOC alleged that the employee was able to perform the essential functions of his job, but was denied a “reasonable accommodation” in regard to modifications of the belting mechanism. During the course of the litigation, the employer settled the case by paying the employee damages of $55,000 and providing him with six months of outplacement services. The employer also agreed to provide training and written guidance to its managers and human resource professionals on EEOC compliance, disability discrimination laws and responsibilities concerning reasonable accommodations for employees.

A second notable case arose out of Louisiana where the EEOC filed an ADA claim against a treatment facility for chemically dependent women and their children on behalf of an employee who claimed that she was fired because of her severe obesity. Although the employee died while the case was pending, the EEOC pursued the claim on behalf of her estate after a Louisiana federal court ruled that the employee’s severe obesity was a disability under the ADA.  Following that preliminary ruling, the employer agreed to pay $125,000 to the employee’s estate to settle the case.

Although there has yet to be an authoritative circuit court or Supreme Court decision, it is likely that the district courts and the EEOC will increasingly trend toward ruling that obesity is a disability that falls within the purview of the ADA. Given this likelihood, employers should take steps now to evaluate their policies relating to reasonable accommodation for obese employees.

Given that the EEOC has indicated staffing firms may be liable for both their own failures to provide reasonable accommodations for any failures of the customers with which they place contingent employees, prudence dictates that staffing firms be proactive in evaluating their ability to reasonably accommodate employees who have obesity related limitations as well and the policies of the clients with whom they place employees. Taking steps now to evaluate the practical realities of an employer’s workplace and creating policies and procedures for obesity-related accommodations can help avoid costly litigation in the future.


Larry Justice, Jr.

Larry Justice, Jr.
Larry Justice Jr. is General Counsel for the Bartech Group, a Michigan-based professional services firm. He can be reached at ljustice (at) bartech (dot) com.

Larry Justice, Jr.

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