We commented on July 2, 2012 that only one state – Michigan – and only 6 cities prohibit discrimination based upon physical appearance or obesity. We also noted that a few courts have taken the position that obesity is a “disability” under the expanded ADA definition.
That position has just been strengthened significantly by the American Medical Association’s vote last week to classify obesity – suffered by almost 1/3 of all Americans — as a disease. The New York Times noted that “To some extent, the question of whether obesity is a disease or not is a semantic one, since there is not even a universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes a disease. And the A.M.A.’s decision has no legal authority.” However, the impact on employers may be great.
Apropos to that earlier post, we wrote a few weeks later that the EEOC reported a settlement with a Virginia-based military vehicle manufacturing company which it had sued under the ADA on behalf of an employee who it claimed was fired because he was “morbidly obese.” The fired employee weighed 680 pounds when employed, but was alleged by the EEOC to have been qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, and to have been denied any reasonable accommodations by his employer.
Although the EEOC’s lawsuit was ADA-based, and not based upon a law that explicitly bans discrimination against person who are obese, we recommended an important new working paper drafted by a Vanderbilt University academic which suggests that laws which make the obese a protected class are more effective in combating such discrimination than treating obesity as a disability under the ADA.
We are unaware of any new laws which treat obesity as a protected class, but the AMA’s action last week is sure to inspire a spate of new suits which claim that the disease of obesity is a disability under the ADA — citing the American Medical Association.