Obesity Discrimination- Has the ADAAA Opened the Door?

/ 12.Jan, 2012
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) was enacted to restore Congressional intent to confer civil rights protection to persons with disabilities in the face of restrictive judicial rulings that limited the reach of the ADA to those with only the most severe physical or mental limitations. Under the expansive definition of disability conferred by the ADAAA and the recently enacted EEOC regulations, employers may now question whether obesity and obesity-related health conditions qualify as a disability for purposes of precluding discrimination and triggering the duty of reasonable accommodation. As the society and government pay increasing attention to the health consequences of obesity and its economic toll in terms of health care costs and lost productivity, the plight of those facing discrimination in the workplace may be viewed in a different light as obesity becomes regarded more as a physiological condition and less as a personal characteristic or moral failure. As approximately one-third of Americans are obese and some studies have identified self reported incidents of discrimination of 12 % of adults, courts will be pressed to answer the question of whether obesity is a disability under the new liberal standards established by the EEOC. Prior rulings that even morbid obesity must be the result of a physiological condition to qualify as a disability, e.g., EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines , will likely fall to the wayside under the ADAAA. In EEOC v. Resources for Human Development , a Louisiana federal district court held that severe obesity qualified as a disability and does not require proof of an underlying physiological cause. Going forward, the key question will likely be whether the obese individual has significant physical limitations in performing major life activities, such as walking, bending, lifting, etc., and that obesity will be viewed no differently than other disabling physical impairments or diseases. The most significant change under the ADAAA is that “regarded as” disability discrimination does not require proof that the condition would otherwise qualify as a disability. Therefore, the employer that disqualifies the obese job applicant based on the mistaken belief that they are not physically capable of performing the job or because of the perception of increased health care costs or related absenteeism associated with hiring, might face a disability discrimination claim under the new legal framework. Questions or comments regarding the ADAAA and EEOC regulations and employer policy and procedures may be directed to Bill Salzer at or (215) 299-4346.