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Obesity and the ADA: The Evolving Case Law

In an earlier blog post, we noted that the American Medical Association now recognizes obesity as a disease and we questioned whether courts in ADA cases would begin to recognize obesity as a disability. Courts are now beginning to answer that question.

Most recently, in Whitaker v. America’s Car-Hart, Inc., a Missouri federal court refused to dismiss an ADA claim in which alleged the plaintiff alleged his employer terminated him because of his severe obesity. The Court rejected the employer’s argument that severe obesity does not qualify as an “actual disability” under the ADA “unless it is related to an underlying physiological disorder or condition.” The Court found the employer’s argument inconsistent with the EEOC’s Interpretive Guidance regarding obesity, as well as the expansive definition of disability embraced by the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). As the Court observed:

• The EEOC takes the position that “severe obesity, which has been described as body weight more than 100% over the norm, is clearly an impairment” ; and

• “Based on the substantial expansion of the ADA by the ADAAA, defendant’s assertion that plaintiff’s weight cannot be considered a disability is misplaced.”

Employers will no doubt react poorly to Whitaker and decisions like it. The rule urged by the employer (but rejected by the court) might seem more reasonable since many people consider obesity—correctly or incorrectly—to be a preventable condition. But, as the Whitaker court observed, the ADA (especially as amended) does not distinguish between impairments in this manner. For now, employers should get used to the idea that severe obesity may be considered a covered disability and adjust their behavior accordingly.

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