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Obesity Is a Disability, Says EEOC

EEOC now claims obesity is a disability under ADAAA. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) now claims obesity is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). Until now, the courts have routinely rejected general obesity as a “disability” under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. 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 has filed suit, claiming that a company discriminatorily fired an employee because of obesity. 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. EEOC v. Resources for Human Development (E.D. LA.2010).

Too much reference information generates ADA suit. All information about employees’ conditions, diagnosis and use of FMLA or other sick leave is confidential. It is not to be shared with anyone except under the tight framework of the ADA, FMLA, HIPAA and other privacy laws. In EEOC v. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans (E.D. Wis., 2010), it is alleged that the company revealed medical information about a former temporary employee’s migraine condition as part of giving references. This prevented the person from obtaining other jobs. The EEOC has sued on behalf of the former employee, seeking back pay for the jobs he would have obtained if not for the illegal information. The suit also seeks punitive damages from the company’s alleged “reckless indifference” to the confidentiality requirements.

This case is yet another reminder about the reference process. An employer has great latitude to provide honest and legal information. However, this should be a controlled function. All managers should have at least rudimentary training in the do’s and don’ts. No reference should be given until it is cleared by a manager who has more in-depth knowledge of the legal parameters of the process. [For more information, request the article Use and Abuse of References by Atty. Robert Gregg, Boardman Law Firm, or see boardmanlawfirm.com (reading room)].

Disabled employee sues disability rights organization. In Wega v. Center for Disability Rights, Inc. (2nd Cir., 2010), an employee who had had a stroke was discharged. He sued, claiming disability discrimination and failure to accommodate. The court found for the employer. The evidence showed the stroke created mental and physical impairments that substantially limited his job performance. The employer had granted accommodations of extra time to complete assignments and reduced responsibilities. The employee was not meeting the requirements of the job and could show no other accommodations that were likely to enable him to adequately perform the job.

Bob Gregg, partner in Boardman Law Firm, shares his roundup of diversity-related legal issues. He can be reached at rgregg@boardmanlawfirm.com.

 

49 Comments

  • I am shocked by that the EEOC is claiming obesity by itself is a disability. While I have no doubt that obese people face daily challenges that are caused by their condition, the majority of obese have caused their condition through their own behavior and lifestyle choices. I am not advocating discrimation against obese people, but with recent examples in the news of hospitals refusing to hire smokers I wonder at the double standard. Obesity has surpassed smoking as the number one preventable cause of death in the US and I think that this claim by the EEOC only serves to normalize, excuse, and accomodate dangerous behavior and lifestyle choices that are literally killing millions of Americans.

    • You are an idiot not a medical expert. You know absolutely nothing about obesity nor do you know every obese person. What you stated was not fact but your dumbfounded opinion.

    • Alcoholism is also a self inflicted lifestyle choice, but it is considered a disease. Why should obesity not be one as well?

      • So those people who took pain meds, or benzo’s and their doctor told them it was they thing to do and they became addicted to an addictive substance that ruined their lives they are CHOOSING to be addicts well.

        The real problem is that WELL PEOPLE want to put the most troubled people are far away from themselves both physically and psychologically and blame the victim so the do not have to realize that that ill person could be THEM.

        I can rattle off a list of diseases and drugs that cause obesity that is NOT the fault of the patient: Thyroid disorders, SSRI administration, corticosteroid use, endocrine disorders. Anemia causing the person to crave foods to get nutrients that their guts have difficulty absorbing which even supplements don’t help, daily shots are required and the time docs realize the problem has lead to obesity even though in a sense the individual is malnourished.

        I’m sick of dumbfucks that think they control all aspect of their lives and that ill people should do the same. isn’t there a special place in hell that you people should be in because your obviously devils.

  • I think this is a good thing. I know a lot of obese people that suffer in silence and thiill make it so they will get accomidations they need (airline seating comes to mind) I am not obese myself, and do try to help people prevent it but I also don’t think everyone has the body metabilism to get rid of their obesity. It isnt’ a complete behavioural issue, it is somewhat genetic as well. I am disabled though and have spent my life dealing with people that misunderstand disability. Anything that can equalize people is important IMO

  • Anonymous

    Causality is not a reason to deny protections for disabled persons. Until and unless fat people (and people of all heights and weights) can enjoy civil rights protections based on body size, this disability definition is a much needed and valid use of the law.

  • While there are often extenuating circumstances, I think rendering obesity as a disability is ludicrous. Just as tobacco use (which also leads to morbidity and mortality), obesity represents a very difficult condition that can be changed only by lifestyle choices and changes. It can almost always be changed, though, and the fact that our country’s obesity rates are increasing over time indicates that we simply don’t move like we used to, that our eating habits have deteriorated, and that this is a preventable condition.

  • “The majority of obese have caused their condition through their own behavior and lifestyle choices.”

    You could say exactly the same thing about paraplegics injured during risky activities like contact sports, motocross, etc. That doesn’t make them any less disabled. Disability law is not merit based. If we excluded from protection under the law everyone who had contributed to their own condition through risky behavior, a vast swath of truly diabled people would be left without protection.

    So why do we feel more sympathy for a person paralyzed after trying to jump a canyon on a dirt bike than for a person who has been overweight since early childhood? The answer is that we percieve one as adventurous and active, and the other as lazy and lacking willpower. Whether or not these perceptions are accurate, they govern how we relate to each.

    The debate about obesity as a disability reminds me of our debate in the 80′s about how we should categorize people with HIV – the condition being percieved as the disabled person’s “own fault.” I would argue that a disability so strongly stigmatized is exceptionally worthy of protection.

  • Anonymous

    It is true that many obese persons have caused their condition through their own behavior but they are not the only ones responsibile. The Meat and Dairy industries share the blame for adding unhealthy amounts of salt, sugar and fat to their food which has been proved to “addict” some people to fast food. When are we going to hold those people accountable for their part in the obesity crisis in our country?

  • Anonymous

    Comparing obesity with a paraplegic is preposterous. It’s amazing to see people blaming fast food restaurants for people’s obesity and justifying the EEOC’s ruling. What’s next? Blaming Absolut for making vodka which happens to be enjoyed by an alcoholic? If certain foods “addict” people to them, then label obesity a disease, like alcholism or anything else. But calling it a disability is inappropriate.

    Let’s look at the bigger picture and the precedent that this ruling serves. Any sort of physical condition that prevents someone from doing something can be deemed a disability. How about someone who is barely 5 feet tall and can’t reach the overhead bin in an airplane? Shouldn’t that be a disability? How about someone who is 6″6′ tall and they have to duck through doorways to get through them? Shouldn’t that be a disability? How about a guy with a large beer gut who can’t keep his pants up because his stomach pushes them down? Shouldn’t that be a disability? Ok, perhaps these are ridiculous examples, but they are just that: examples. The obesity as a disability is just as ridiculous but it’s the real thing.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t agree, one can choose live a healthy lifestyle and not be obeese.

    • Oh Really???? I am considered obese on the BMI chart and I swim and ride an exercise bike almost every day as well as eating a healthy low carb diet. because of my genetics as well as a disability which limits my mobility I will always be obese no matter what I do and I still have the right to be able to work just like any able-bodied person.

  • Anonymous

    Obesity is not necessarily something that is strictly caused by the person themselves. There is evidence that a genetic marker or a rare disease can exacerabate the condition. I am an obese person and have been so for my entire life. I dont’ purport myself to need any special accomodations to do my job. There is a lot of stigma associated with being obese. People naturally assume that because you are obese that you are lazy. I am nothing of the sort. I do agree that there would need to be some strict guidlines around using FMLA just becuase you are obese; I say that because in most cases one can do things to alleviate their condition. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure many obese people are not obese becouse they want to but becouse They don’t know how to loose weight. And it is difficult to perform for obese people, therfore they are disable.

  • Anonymous

    Obesity is a pretty general catagory to call it a disability. To the previous posters point around alcoholism, true that obesity is caused, in part, by overeating, however the overeating is the disease, not the obesity. The obesity is the result, much like another disability may be the result of alcoholism or smoking. So to say obesity is not disabling I feel is false, however it could be accurate to say obesity is not a disease, rather the effects of the disease.

  • Anonymous

    As a person who is more than 100 lbs overweight without any known underlying medical reasons, I find this judgement to be ridiculous. If a person has some underlying medical condition, that would be another story. My weight problem is caused directly by lack of physical activity, the lack of which is NOT due to my weight. If I am considered disabled, they might as well consider laziness as a disability.

  • Anonymous

    Well.. I hope this means that there will be a surge of wellness and preventative care programs to help those who are obese. This also includes changing the national diet. Because lets get real… do you know how many people in this country are considered “obese”? It’s time to change this.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, as someone who has been morbidly obese for the majority of my life, this is shocking. I thank God every day for the insurance that paid for my gastric bypass surgery. However I will never stop to challenge the insensitive people who don’t understand the challenges of obesity. All I can say is: you try to haul 350 pounds around and see how much exercise you get. There are way too many underlying factors that go into someone’s obesity, including: poverty, education, genetics, and, yes, lifestyle. If you want to help the obesity issues in America, please work to build people up instead of breaking them down.

  • Anonymous

    Obesity as a disability? Well..Yes, if they are truly obese, lets say, 200 or more pounds overweight. Those folks are discriminated against in employment, if the employment opportunity suits them. Making snap judgments is what needs to stop, judgments such as “its their own fault they are obese” . For some yes, for others, there are other circumstances and as long as those circumstances does not interfere with job performance or puts others in jeopardy, if they are experienced, they should be hired (as long as there are no requirements of the job that actually affects the performance). So what if they employer needs to buy a bigger chair, or ask the new ‘obese’ employee to pay more for a rider on group health insurance, or include them on their gym memberships (what a great thing to do!). I’ve written this many times and I will voice my view again here, what constitutes obesity? Think hard before you write responses against this ruling. Most employees who are deemed overweight are NOT clinically obese. Obesity is ofttimes judged by no fault of the employee as well. The prejudgment is that obese employees are not healthy, call in sick a lot and wont be able to function in various labor or administrative jobs. But what I just wrote applies to ANY employee, not just an obese one. Applicants beyond the weight “norm” do apply, can be as capable as any employee and get discriminated upon based on looks, not appearance and experience only. It is the employers’ choice – his/her CHOICE – to decide this person has bad habits without knowing anything about them except for how they look, instead of the job at hand. Make no mistake, I am speaking of two separate issues here: the clinically obese job applicant (which does need an advocate), and the job applicant unfairly judged at as obese (which does not need an advocate, but is judged solely upon pleasing looks and features to the employer rather than experience and reference checks). And nine out of ten times, this type of applicant is usually a woman judged unfairly because they do not fit a specific stereotype. This is wrong no matter how its presented. I’m only asking readers to forget what they think, and look at what they know when it comes to hiring. Is real obesity the problem (sloth, gluttony) in hiring, or is it the eye of the beholder where the person isn’t really obese, just not perfect enough to hire? This ruling may challenge employers on some of their hiring practices and on that alone I say, about time.

  • Anonymous

    I am a person who can be considered obese by medical standards and I have to admit I am a little uncertain on how I feel about this ruling. Though I have been in great physical shape in the past, I have never been, nor will I ever be “skinny” due to genetics and bone size. I am not an overeater, a closet eater or any of the other labels people like to put on people who don’t fit into their picture of “normal”. Rather, I was in 2-serious car accidents and 1-work accident that has rendered it painful to maintain the exercise level I used to complete and so my body almost acts like my enemy on some days. Does this mean I need to be protected by law because of my size while other challenged folks, like the aforementioned smokers, not? I don’t know — seems like we continue to police ourselves too much and make too many rules. I guess my rose-colored glasses indicate we should have more common sense in the 21st century. On the other hand, I have seen some morbidly obese people discriminated against and I can guarantee you, the person making the judgment likely didn’t know that persons’ story or how they got that way. In any case, as I started my comments out, I am uncertain how I feel about this ruling. However — I am pleased to see the excellent communication and discussion around this topic.

  • Anonymous

    I believe obesity comes in two forms….medically (medications for another illness) and by over-eating and lack of exercise. We have overweight people where I work and as long as they are doing their job, no problem. However, we have noticed that such people are not asked to represent the department at major functions. Why not? Because many don’t believe such people present a professional business look. They will have the larger person work on the presentation, but will not allow them to present.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been obese and by recommendation of my endocrinologist because of underlying genetic disorders I has from birth I had bariatric surgery and am now a normal weight. I did not cuase my obesity and about 10% of the population has similar disorders. A regular aerobic routine daily and a 400 calorie diet for a year still caused weight gain. That’s the story of my life so far.
    As for causing one’s own disability, I know of a bunch of people who skied into trees, dived head first into shallow water, or athlete who because they played a high risk sport, are disabled. I believe no one questions their right to benefits. Obese childern are fed incorrectly perhaps, should they get a break until they can figure out how to reverse a lifelong problem, if they can. Once diabetic, the difficulties are enormous.
    What this ruling might do is allow people in need of medical and psychologic support to get the help they need before they become a taxpayer’s burden.

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me the issue of obesity as a disability, as far as an employer is concerned, shares some points with other conditions. It’s not all about whose “fault” it is that a person is obese. It’s about the talents and abilities that person has to offer.

  • Anonymous

    Has anyone noticed that the EEOC uses obese, morbidly obese and severely obese interchangeably on their website and correspondence? I think this may be part of the concern when it comes to their definition of disability. I do not think the EEOC will actually include obesity as a disability, if there are no edical conditions being used as the reason for discrimination (unless they use “perceived as”). Contrary to what many think, there are people who are considered clinically obese who do not currently have heath problems.

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