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Obesity Now A Protected Disability?

In June 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognized obesity as a disease. What are the implications of that decision for employers seeking to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Conventional wisdom has been that obesity unlinked to an underlying medical condition, such as thyroid disease or diabetes, was not considered an ADA protected disability. For example, in the recently decided Andrew O. v. Racing Corporation of West Virginia, the West Virginia Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment against a 540 pound employee who alleged disability discrimination under West Virginia’s analog to the ADA. The court reasoned that obesity was not a protected disability because state regulations did not “include ‘obesity’ in the list of physical impairments that typically denote a particular disability.” Andrew O. v. Racing Corp. of West Va., CIV.A. No. 12-1255 (W. Va. June 24, 2013).

It remains unclear whether this logic will continue to hold in the wake of the AMA’s decision to classify obesity as a disease. The 2009 amendments to the ADA loosened the definition of disability to the point, some would argue, that virtually any diagnosed medical condition now qualifies as a protected “disability.” With the AMA now characterizing obesity as a disease, it is possible (although still legally untested) that employers will need to consider reasonable accommodations for anyone diagnosed with obesity.   Until the courts resolve this issue, employers should at least be mindful of the possibility that their ADA obligations could extend to obese employees.

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