Is obesity considered a “disability” under the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. It ensures equal opportunity in employment for disabled persons. The statute specifically provides that:
No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.
ADA, 42 U.S.C. §12112(a).

The main question is what constitutes a “disability” under the ADA? The term “disability” can encompass a lot. As defined by the ADA, a disability is (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual, (2) a record of such an impairment or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. The definition can be broken down further. 42 U.S.C. §12102(1).

First, 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).

Second, 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.

Third, 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(3). 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.

Does Obesity qualify as “disability” under the ADA?

The Equal Employment in Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) 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 EEOC’s 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
2. Psychiatric/Mental Impairments
3. Neurological Impairments
4. Heart Impairments
5. Hearing Impairments

42 U.S.C. §12211.

Now it appears that obesity may be covered under the protections of the ADA. The question remains whether the ADA will start to include other illnesses that were long excluded from the protections of the ADA, such as: pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders; compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or pyromania; and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs. 42 U.S.C. §12211.

This Article was originally posted on the Law.com Network on November 11, 2014.