Under the original Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), obesity was considered a disability only when it was due to an underlying physiological disorder, like diabetes or a thyroid condition. Otherwise, obesity was considered a lifestyle choice. Today, obesity itself is considered a disability.
ADAAA Changes Definitions
In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) expanded the definition of disability, particularly the definitions of “substantially limits” and “major life activities.”
Since then, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts have further expanded the legal definition of when obesity constitutes a disability. Employees need no longer establish that their obesity is due to a physiological disorder. Obesity alone - whether morbid, severe, or simple obesity - can cause sufficient impairment.
Morbid obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher. Severe obesity is a BMI of 35-39.9. Simple obesity is a BMI of 30-34.9.
The EEOC now claims that basic obesity, without any underlying condition, can sufficiently impact life activities like bending, walking and transportation. Obesity should now be treated as a physical impairment.
Formative Obesity Decisions
The EEOC settled a disability discrimination lawsuit in July of 2012, based on the question of morbid obesity as a disability. An employee had been able to perform the essential duties of his job and had received good performance reviews. His employer refused to make accommodation (a forklift truck seat belt extension) for his morbid obesity and fired him.
In a press release announcing this settlement, the EEOC explicitly states, “The law protects morbidly obese employees and applicants from being subject to discrimination because of their obesity.”
A few months earlier, the Montana Supreme Court decided that obesity, even when not the result of a physiological disorder, should be considered “an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
Changes for Employers and Employees
Employers should consider these decisions when making employment decisions - including hiring, firing and accommodation policies - that could negatively affect obese (and even overweight) employees. Obese employees should understand their new rights as interpreted by the EEOC and the courts under the ADAAA.
An Employment Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding the categorization of obesity as a disability under the ADA is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an employment lawyer. Should obesity be considered a disability? Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below.