Is Obesity A Disability Under The Ada
This article was edited and reviewed by FindLaw Attorney Writers| Last updated July 27, 2016
The Americans with Disabilities Act provides that employers covered by the statute may not discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability with respect to employment matters. A person making a claim under the ADA, then, must show that she has a disability, that she is otherwise qualified to do the job, and that the matter as to which he complains happened because of her disability. Consequently, a substantial amount of the litigation of ADA claims revolves around the question of whether the plaintiff has a “disability,” as that term is defined in the statute.
One type of claimed disability that is increasingly the subject of litigation is obesity. Although courts initially were reluctant to recognize obesity as a qualifying disability for purposes of ADA protection, courts are increasingly willing to consider obesity as a disability giving plaintiffs status to raise ADA claims.
ADA Defines Disability
Obesity ADA Claims
The federal district court in Pennsylvania, in 1997, awarded damages to a fired employee when he was able to show that his former manager had made derogatory comments about his weight. And a 1996 Texas decision 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.
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What This Means For Workers
For employers, its long past time to recognize that obesity can present liability under the ADA. Employers do not have to rubber stamp-approve all obesity-related accommodation requests but nor can employers automatically feed those requests into the shredder. They need consideration like any other ADA accommodation request. Additionally, employers need to stay mindful of liability for disability-based harassment of employees and that includes severely obese employees. Stereotypes, derogatory comments and other weight-related content can form the basis for an obesity-related harassment or hostile work environment claim.
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Obesity And Its Relationship To Disability Discrimination
Naturally, most employers strive to take every legal precaution they can and to put forth their best effort to remain in compliance with all employment laws. Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is no exception.
The ADA Amendments Act went into effect in 2009 and effectively made it clearer what constitutes a disability, thus eliminating many arguments over what should and should not be covered by the ADA. But there are still questions that remain. One such question is: When does obesity become a disability? The fact of being overweight is not in and of itself a disabling condition, but there are many facets to this question. Lets take a look at some of the considerations.
Is Obesity A Disability Under Ada
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More than one-third of American adultssome 72 million peopleare obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But generally, obesity alone does not qualify as a disability under the ADA. A recent federal appellate court decision agrees with that premise.
Recent case: Mark became a full-time bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority in 1999. His weight climbed from about 350 pounds in 2005 to over 560 pounds just four years later.
Under the CDCs guidelines on obesity, Mark reached the level for extreme obesity when he passed the 315-pound mark, based on his body mass index .
But by then he could not fit in the drivers seat, which could not support more than 400 pounds. He was eventually terminated.
The trial court dismissed the case because Mark could not point to an underlying physiological condition that caused his obesity.
He appealed, arguing obesity itself was a disability. However, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate his lawsuit.
Final note: Some workers are protected from obesity discrimination more may soon be.
Michigan has banned obesity discrimination in employment since 1977. Weight discrimination is unlawful in San Francisco Santa Fe, N.M. and Washington, D.C. Massachusetts in currently considering a bill to confer protected status on obesity.
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Does Obesity Qualify As Disability Under The Ada
The Equal Employment in Opportunity Commission now claims obesity is a disability under ADA. Courts have routinely rejected general obesity as a disability under the ADA. Cases have required one to show some different underlying medical condition that is a disability and that causes obesity as a symptom. Now the EEOC claims that ever since President George W. Bush authorized the ADA Amendments Act in 2008, the law has a much lower threshold for what constitutes a disability. The EEOC claims that basic obesity, without any other underlying condition, sufficiently impacts the life activities of bending, walking, digestion, cell growth, etc., to qualify as a disability or perceived disability.
The EEOCs position has started to impact the court system as well. Recently, a Missouri federal judge ruled in April 2014 that a former employee of a car dealership who has accused his employer of firing him for his weight has sufficiently supported his claim that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.
Up until now, the most common examples of disabilities under the ADA were:
1. Back/Spinal Injury
Ada Covers Temporary Disabilities Too
The ADA was enacted 18 years ago, but its still one of the most misunderstood employment laws. The hard part isnt necessarily determining how to accommodate disabled employees. Its figuring out which employees are disabled.
Some cases are obvious. A blind applicant or an employee who uses a wheelchair are probably clearly disabled under the ADA, meeting the definition of having an impairment that substantially limits a major life function like seeing or walking.
Its more difficult to identify disabilities that are transient or periodic in nature. Nevertheless, the EEOCthe federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADAhas made it clear that many conditions that are temporary or episodic are covered disabilities.
Cancer is one such disability. After treatment, cancer can go into remission and a patient may be considered cured once enough time has passed.
Recent case: The EEOC sued ChenMed, which operates medical centers for elderly patients, for violating the ADA when it fired an employee instead of accommodating his transient disability. A sales manager had just completed treatment for colon cancer. His cancer was apparently in remission when he was terminated.
The parties settled the case, the manager receiving $200,000 in damages. The company also agreed to conduct disability discrimination training for all officers, managers, supervisors and employees.
Final note: Other transient conditions that may be covered ADA disabilities include:
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Getting Disability Through The Listing Of Impairments
The SSA publishes a book that contains a list of impairments, and if you meet the criteria for one of the listed impairments, you are automatically approved for disability benefits .
Obesity used to be listed as an impairment in the Listing of Impairments, but the SSA removed it in 1999. The logic was that many obese individuals are able to lead productive lives and hold gainful employment. Today, you can still be awarded disability benefits for obesity, but the SSA will consider obesity under the impairment listings only if 1) its limitations are equivalent to those in an impairment listing or 2) it causes or contributes other listed impairments.
As an example of equaling an impairment listing, if the obesity causes an individual to be unable to walk effectively, the individual’s condition could “equal” the impairment listing for major dysfunction of a weight bearing joint, an impairment-level listing.
As to the obesity causing or contributing to other impairments, obesity is often linked to medical conditions in the musculoskeletal, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems and to diabetes, hypertension, gall bladder disease, sleep apnea, stroke, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers. If you suffer from obesity and have any of these other, related conditions, you should look to see whether your conditions meet the listing criteria for those conditions.
How Much Is Too Much
In July of this year, the EEOC announced that it had reached a settlement in a disability-discrimination lawsuit against BAE Systems, which allegedly had discriminated against an employee on the basis of his actual or perceived disability of morbid obesity by terminating him. The employee, Ronald Kratz, II, was morbidly obese, as he weighed well in excess of 600 pounds. He worked as a material handler in BAEs manufacturing location in Texas. His job duties mostly included desk work, but occasionally required him to drive a forklift. Company policy required him to wear a seatbelt while driving the forklift. Unable to wear the provided seatbelt, he asked for a seatbelt extender. Instead of providing the extender, BAE terminated him on the basis that he could no longer perform his job due to his weight.
From this case, it is clear that the EEOC has taken the position that there may be extreme cases where the physical characteristic is far outside the normal range and constitutes an ADA-protected impairment even absent a physiological disorder. From the EEOCs viewpoint, a person who is morbidly obese has an ADA-protected disability, period.
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Whats The Legal Basis
There is no federal law explicitly prohibiting obesity discrimination, and the ADA doesnt specifically address it, so the employees that have brought claims under the ADA for obesity discrimination have had mixed results. Whether obesity is a disability under the ADA and what proof is required for an obese employee to win the case are issues that have generated controversy over the years.
The ADA’s basic definition of “disability” is an impairment, that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. In 2008 the ADA was amended . The ADAAA did not change the wording of this definition however, Congress indicated that the definitions of “substantially limits” and “major life activities should be interpreted broadly. Thus, the ADAAA increased the probability that morbid obesity will be deemed to constitute a federally protected disability.
With the passage of the ADAAA, the EEOC changed its view on whether obesity is an impairment. Prior to passage of the ADAAA, the EEOC Interpretative Guidance said that severe or morbid obesity was an impairment, but that obesity alone rarely is. After the ADAAA passed, when the EEOC revised the Interpretive Guidance, it deleted the language indicating that obesity rarely would be a disability.
Obesity And The Americans With Disabilities Act
The ADA does not contain a list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA has a general definition of disability that each person must meet. A person has a disability if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act .
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Three Steps To Determine A Disability
1. A disability can be a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A major life activity can include walking, caring for oneself, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, etc. A major life activity can also include the operation of a bodily function, such as the immune system, digestive system, brain, respiratory system, etc. 42 U.S.C. §12102.
2. You can have a disability under the ADA if you have a record of such an impairment. This definition is simple if you have a medical record of having a physical or mental impairment, then you have a disability under the ADA.
3. You can have a disability under the ADA if you are regarded as having such an impairment. An individual satisfies this definition if the individual establishes that he/she has been discriminated against because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment. 42 U.S.C. §12102. If an employer perceives you as having a physical or mental impairment and discriminates against you because of that perception, then you likely have a disability under the ADA. Also, if you have an actual physical or mental impairment that is obvious/noticeable and your employer discriminates against you because if it, then you likely have a disability under the ADA.
Obesity Regarded As Disability Under Ada
On March 5, 2018, in a decision styled Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, Case No. 15-cv-11040 , the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois suggested liability could attach where an employer regarded an obese individual as disabled, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended .
As previously reported in this blog, courts have held that obesity is not a disability under the ADA. To qualify as a disability, a physical or mental impairment must substantially limit a major life activity. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued interpretive guidance providing physical characteristics, such as weight, do not qualify as disabilities unless they are outside of a normal range and result from a physiological disorder.
While this issue is likely to receive additional consideration from the appellate courts, in the meantime employers should continue to use caution when dealing with employment issues related to obesity.
Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, Case No. 15-cv-11040 .
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Is Obesity Covered By The Ada
Can you be denied a job based on your weight? Do you have to provide accommodations for overweight employees? The answer to the question of can I be denied a job because of my weight, just like the question of do I have to accommodate an overweight employee, depends on what jurisdiction you are in.
In Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the answer is that obesity is covered under the ADA. An employer in those states must accommodate an overweight employee under the ADA.
However, in Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana, Iowa, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, an employer does not need to accommodate an overweight person based on the ADA, and you can be refused a job for being overweight.
However, it is not as simple as that, and that is only a list of twenty-two states. Even within those twenty-two states the answer is not as straightforward as it may seem.
For the twenty-eight states not listed, the question remains whether the ADA covers weight problems.
By: Joshua H. Sheskin, Esq., M.A. -Trial Counsel- Lubell & Rosen, LLC. 954-880-9500
Is Morbid Obesity Considered An Ada Disability
Does that mean that a 680-pound man disabled? Lets check the facts. In its complaint, a copy of which you can find here, the EEOC alleges that the workers morbid obesity interferes with his ability to walk, stand, kneel, stoop, lift and breathe. Those sound to me like major life activities and I can imagine how being that overweight could interfere with one or more of them.
To the extent that the employee can accomplish these major life activities with the use of pills, crutches, or other assistive measures, it doesnt matter. So, yes, there is a strong argument that a morbidly obese employee has a disability.
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There is another way that a morbidly-obese employee could be considered disabled under the ADA, and that is if the company regards the employee as disabled. . Even if the employee does not have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities is considered an actual disability, that employee is disabled under the ADA because thats how company considers the employee.
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In Deciding Disability Social Security Will Consider Obesity Only If It Causes Or Contributes To Listed Impairments Or Severely Limits Your Functioning
The Social Security Administration defines obesity as a chronic and complex disease that is characterized by excessive accumulation of body fat. Obese adults are those with a body mass index of 30 and over. Morbidly obese adults have a BMI of 40 or more.
A medical provider will also look at excess fat when determining obesity, because if someone has a very large percentage of their weight coming from muscle, they may have an elevated BMI but not be obese. Similarly, a person may have a “healthy” BMI, but if they have little muscle, they may have an unhealthy percentage of their body weight coming from fat.
Obesity is involved in metabolic syndrome , which involves an enlarged waist circumference , insulin resistance, elevated triglyceride levels, and high blood pressure. But to qualify for Social Security or SSI disability, an individual needs more than a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome or even diabetes. The obesity or metabolic syndrome has to have caused damage through cardiovascular disease or diabetes or have very limited mobility and functional abilities.
This article discusses getting disability for obese adults. To read about getting disability for an obese child, read our article on SSI for childhood obesity.
Challenges Facing People With Disabilities
People with disabilities can find it more difficult to eat healthy, control their weight, and be physically active. This might be due to:
- A lack of healthy food choices.
- Difficulty with chewing or swallowing food, or its taste or texture.
- Medications that can contribute to weight gain, weight loss, and changes in appetite.
- Physical limitations that can reduce a persons ability to exercise.
- A lack of energy.
- A lack of accessible environments that can enable exercise.
- A lack of resources .
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