What exactly is required for a physical issue to be considered a disability? More than two-thirds of the U.S. population are overweight or obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and, in recent years, a number of lawsuits have been filed in federal courts by severely obese individuals who want employment protection under the American with Disabilities Act. In at least two of several cases, the judges ruled in favor of the overweight plaintiffs.
Most recently, in a Missouri federal court, the Honorable Stephen N. Limbaugh, Jr. heard the case of Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Inc, that “an employee’s severe obesity might constitute a ‘disability’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” allowing the plaintiff, Joseph Whittaker, to pursue the claim in a higher court.
Joseph Whittaker, the plaintiff, filed the case, alleging that he was discharged from his job as General Manager at America’s Car-Mart due to his severe obesity. Whittaker charged that his employer perceived him as significantly limited in his ability to walk, though the plaintiff maintained he was able to execute all the necessary duties of his job, both with or without accommodation. On the other hand, America’s Car-Mart asked for a dismissal of the disability discrimination claim, citing their belief that severe obesity, without an underlying physiological disorder, isn’t recognized by the ADA.
Judge Limbaugh explained that 1) America’s Car-Mart relied on outdated case law that has become less restrictive since the ADA Amendment Act (ADAAA) in 2008, and 2) that the removal of the phrase “except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment” in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Interpretive Guidance indicates that severe obesity is, indeed, considered a disability under the ADA without requiring proof of an underlying physiological disorder.
There’s still some question about how the courts will address the varying levels of obesity, but it’s clear that “severe” and “morbid” obesity are considered disabilities under the ADA in most jurisdictions.
Attorney David M. Katz writes in an article about the case that “it is not far-fetched that courts will begin recognizing all forms of obesity as ‘disabilities’ under the ADA. Legislatures on the federal, state or local levels may also tackle this issue one day soon as a new study just revealed that nearly 75% of people support adding body weight as a class protected from discrimination under the civil rights laws.”
Katz also suggests that, until there’s a definitive ruling, employers should treat a worker’s morbid or severe obesity as a disability. Do these judges’ rulings have an impact on the lives of those with a disability which does have an underlying disorder? How would you rule in these cases?