Let's say you heard you lost out on a chance for a promotion because you're overweight. You may wonder if you can file a discrimination claim. Federal laws against discrimination may only give limited protection when claims are based on obesity. State laws may not offer much, if any, added protection.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and a few state laws protect job applicants and employees from disability discrimination. These laws may protect you if you can show your obesity meets the legal definition of disability.
Under the ADA, to qualify as a person with a disability, you must:
- Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The main examples are walking, talking, hearing, seeing, listening and caring for yourself
- Have a history of such an impairment, or
- Be regarded as having such an impairment
Generally, obesity isn't a disability for purposes of federal law. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal employment discrimination laws, does provide guidance on when obesity might be considered a disability.
First, morbid obesity (100 percent over normal body weight) is an impairment that may have ADA protection if you can show you meet the "person with a disability" test.
Second, other conditions related to obesity, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or a heart condition may be protected.
Even if you can show a disability based on obesity, your employer can show its decision or action was justified. The law requires reasonable accommodation for those with disabilities. This means an employer must make changes in the work setting or to job duties so a disabled employee can perform essential functions of a job.
There are exceptions for "undue hardship." Employers can show the burden is too great if meeting an employee's need forces it to:
- Increase its costs or expenses
- Reduce its production standards, or
- Lower its quality standards
Medical Examinations and Inquiries
The ADA gives you certain protection during the hiring process. Generally, employers can't ask pre-employment disability questions or require medical exams for applicants and employees. You may have a claim if:
- You applied for a job and
- The employer asked disability-related questions before making a job offer, or
- Asked you to have a medical exam before making an offer
Review you options for legal relief with an employment law attorney, especially if state law may give more protection than federal law.
The ADA was changed in 2008 to cover people who are perceived as disabled. This change should help employees prove their claims. Some think this change may open the door for claims based on obesity. The idea is stereotypes about the obese lead to viewing an employee as disabled. ADA violations follow.
The EEOC filed an ADA lawsuit in 2010 against an employer after efforts to settle a claim by an obese employee failed. The employee claimed she was fired due to disability. The employer was a nonprofit social service provider. The EEOC claimed the employee's obesity didn't impact her successful work as a counselor. The perceived disability by the employer was the employee had difficulty walking due to her weight.
The EEOC announced it will keep watch for similar cases, and file lawsuits to enforce the ADA. The impact of this change in the law remains to be seen until more cases go through the courts.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How can I prove I'm perceived as disabled due to my weight?
- Let's say appearance does matter for a job. Must the employer enforce weight and size requirements uniformly?
- Can I file a lawsuit based on different types of discrimination? For example, obesity as a disability and my age?