Just today we wrote about obesity in the context of “corporate wellness” programs. Now comes a long-awaited ruling on obesity by the European Court of Justice – the EU’s highest court.
On June 12th we posted that the UK Didlaw Ltd. Newsletter declared that “[t]he most pressing issue around definition of disability right now is whether obesity is a disability.”
“With 64% of the UK workforce said to be obese a finding by the European Court that obesity is a disability could have wide-reaching implications. The EAT recently held in Walker v Sita that obesity is not a disability in itself but might be capable of being one if there is a significant degree of functional impairment.” See also a great article on the subject on the Bristows’ website.
European Court Takes Up Issue Whether EU Law Forbids Obesity Discrimination
On July 20th we stated that “The issue of whether the law forbids obesity discrimination and/or if morbid obesity should be considered a disability may soon be decided. At least in the EU – we have just learned that the European Court of Justice’s advocate has issued a non-binding opinion which is likely to be a key factor in the decision. And the US might not be far behind.”
This issue was taken up by the European Court of Justice in the case of Kaltoft v Billund Kommune, which had to decide whether EU law forbids obesity discrimination and/or if morbid obesity is a disability.
We learned from the Irish Independent that the Court’s advocate general, Niilo Jääskinen, who is an adviser to the Court, had issued a non-binding opinion that EU law sets forth “no general, stand-alone prohibition on discrimination on grounds of obesity,” but that “extreme” obesity, classified as having a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40, may be a disability.
Workplace Savings and Benefits quoted the advocate as saying: “If obesity has reached such a degree that it plainly hinders participation in professional life, then this can be a disability. The notion of disability is objective and does not depend on whether the applicant has contributed causally to the acquisition of his disability through self-inflicted excessive energy intake. Otherwise physical disability resulting from reckless risk-taking in traffic or sports would be excluded from the meaning of disability.”
The Court’s Ruling Today
According to Reuters, a decision has just been handed down today, with the Court holding that “obese people can be considered as disabled, but stopped short of saying that obesity was a condition that needed specific protection under European anti-discrimination laws.”
Reuters said that the Court “ruled that EU employment law did not specifically prohibit discrimination on the grounds of obesity, and said the law should not be extended to make it a protected category. However, the Luxembourg-based court said that if an employee’s obesity hindered “full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers” then it could be considered a disability. This, in turn, is covered by anti-discrimination legislation. …
However, Friday’s nuanced ruling still leaves companies open to potential discrimination suits.”
Let’s take a few days to try and absorb and understand this landmark ruling and it’s impact on US law.