The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “provides that employers covered by the statute may not discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability with respect to employment matters.” In order to make an ADA claim, an employee must show that he has a disability, that he is otherwise qualified to do the job, and that his discharge, demotion, or whatever occurred happened solely because of his disability.
Enacted in 1990, the ADA is a civil rights law that “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.” The law was enacted to ensure that people with disabilities are afforded the same rights and opportunities as those without a disability. The ADA guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in these five areas: Public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
Disability and Obesity Defined
The ADA defines “disability” as follows: “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual.”
The medical definition of morbid obesity is: “A serious health condition that results from an abnormally high body mass that is diagnosed by having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40 kg/m², a BMI of greater than 35 kg/m² with at least one serious obesity-related condition, or being more than 100 pounds over ideal body weight (IBW).” While the term “morbid obesity” has been used in the medical arena for many years, the healthcare field is moving away from using the word “morbid” and is instead referring to this level of obesity as “severe obesity” or “class 3 obesity.”
The obesity levels in medical terms are listed below; BMI stands for Body Mass Index, which is a measure of body fat based on height on weight. The higher the BMI, the more obese the person usually is, and the lower the BMI, the more lean a person usually is.
- Overweight: BMI 25.0-29.9 kg/m²
- Class I Obesity: BMI 30.0-34.9 kg/m²
- Class II Obesity: BMI 35.0-39.9 kg/m²
- Class III Obesity: BMI ≥ 40.0 kg/m²*
Morbid obesity, much like alcoholism and substance abuse, is a disability that has come under scrutiny; many employers are opposed to obesity being recognized as a medical disability in the same way that disabilities like blindness or quadriplegia are treated.
Although courts were initially reluctant to recognize obesity as a qualifying disability for ADA protection, courts are now increasingly willing to consider obesity as a disability. This shift in how obesity is viewed legally gives employees who feel they have been discriminated against status to raise ADA claims if they are discharged, demoted, or passed over for promotion due to the fact that they’re overweight.
Rulings on Obesity as a Disability
Since the early 1990’s, there have been several court cases having to do with the employment of obese workers.
1993 Rhode Island: A court ruled that an employee’s morbid obesity was due to a psychological condition and that the claimant’s weight gain was not voluntary.
1996 New Hampshire: A teacher’s claim was approved when she claimed her morbid obesity caused her student’s to treat her differently and view her as not being as intelligent as teachers who were of average weight.
1996 Texas: A court found that a bus company had improperly decided not to hire an obese woman as a driver because the company could not demonstrate that her obesity would prevent her from performing the necessary functions of the job.
1997 New York: Plaintiff’s claim was denied because she could not prove that her obesity substantially limited her ability to work.
1997 Pennsylvania: A plaintiff was awarded damages when he was able to show that his former manager had made derogatory comments about his weight.
If your rights under the ADA have been violated, please contact an employment discrimination attorney in your area today to see what legal action, if any, may be taken on your behalf.