The American Medical Association's (AMA's) declaration that obesity is a disease could open the door to a new wave of lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Executive Summary: The American Medical Association's (AMA's) declaration that obesity is a disease could open the door to a new wave of lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Disability Under the ADA
The ADA's definition of disability does not specifically include obesity. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) expanded the definition of disability to include many more diagnosed medical conditions, the ADA still does not recognize obesity as a disability unless it is a symptom of a disease. Thus, ADA lawsuits claiming obesity as a disability have not met with much success historically.
In recent years, however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed lawsuits against employers and has successfully obtained private settlements for ADA claims involving morbid obesity as the alleged disability. These EEOC-driven lawsuits served as a cautionary "flag" for employers — signaling that change might be in the future.
AMA's Declaration of Obesity as a Disease
The next cautionary flag has been issued. In June 2013, the AMA officially declared that obesity is a disease. While the AMA's declaration does not create new legal rights for those filing disability complaints, it does provide additional support for an argument that obesity at some level, as a recognized disease, is also a protected disability under the ADA.
A New Wave of Lawsuits?
Approximately one month after the AMA's declaration, Whittaker v. America's Car-Mart, Inc., was filed in federal court in Missouri. In this case, a former employee claimed his employer terminated him because he was "severely obese" and limited in his ability to walk. Despite his alleged disability, Whittaker claimed he could perform the essential functions of his job. This lawsuit, the first of what is sure to be many, suggests the AMA's opinion opened the door for a new wave of lawsuits under the ADA.
Employers' Bottom Line:
Whether courts will interpret the ADA to include obesity as a disability in light of the AMA's declaration remains to be seen. The declaration does serve as a warning for employers, however, and increases the possibility that an obese employee who is adversely affected by an employment decision could make an ADA claim. The level of obesity necessary to prove that an individual is disabled under the ADA remains to be seen. In light of the ADA's ever-changing litigation landscape, employers should revisit their discrimination policies and retrain their managers and employees on how to avoid disability discrimination in the workplace.
This Alert was written by Julia Hodges, an attorney with the Lowenbaum Partnership, L.L.C., a FordHarrison affiliate law firm. If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact the author or the FordHarrison attorney with whom you usually work.