Obesity Can Be a Protected Disability

A federal court ruling that obesity can be a protected disability provides yet another indication that employers who discriminate against competent employees with obesity are creating legal liabilities for their businesses.

Joseph Whitaker sued his former employer, America’s Car Mart, claiming that the company “terminated his employment because of his disability and, in retaliation for the charge of discrimination, threatened to terminate business with other entities if those entities employ plaintiff.” His disability is severe obesity. The company asked a federal judge to block the suit. Their rationale was dated language from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that “except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment.”

Federal judge Stephen Limbaugh flatly rejected this argument. The company’s rationale was based on logic that pre-dated the 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA), which opened up a less restrictive definition of protected disabilities. So Whitaker’s lawsuit will go forward.

For employers, this action provides a clear signal that they can no longer take arbitrary action against employees with obesity, at least in the case of severe obesity. If the employer can make a reasonable accommodation to permit a person with severe obesity to do their job, they must do so unless they want to run afoul of the ADAAA.

This is one more way that — slowly but surely — discrimination and bias against people with obesity is becoming unacceptable. As it should be.

Click here to read more in the Wall Street Journal and here to read more in the National Law Review.

Community Employment Service, photograph © Graeme Nicol / flickr

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