A recent policy change by the American Medical Association (AMA) makes it more likely that obesity, or at least morbid obesity, will qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). According to the ADA, in order for someone to qualify as disabled, they must:
• Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities
• Have a record of one or more of these impairments
• Be regarded as having such impairments
In July, the AMA announced a new policy recognizing obesity as a disease that requires significant medical treatment and prevention. The labeling of obesity as a disease makes it likely that obesity can also qualify as an “impairment,” which will allow it to come under the purview of ADA.
Two 2012 cases
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) settled two cases in 2012 that regarded obesity as a disability.
In EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, Inc., the commission sued a company on the behalf of the estate of a former employee, Lisa Harrison. The lawsuit alleged that the employer violated the ADA by terminating Harrison because she was obese. Harrison weighed 527 pound when her employer terminated her after eight years on the job despite “excellent” job performance ratings.
In EEOC v. BAE Systems Tactical Vehicle Systems, LP, the commission sued BAE for firing employee Ronald Kratz because of morbid obesity. In both the EEOC cases, the commission identified obesity as a disability. Kratz weighed 680 pounds when terminated, and BAE refused his requests for a transfer and special accommodations.
Although it is still too early to say whether courts will regularly consider obesity as an ADA disability, many experts think it is only a matter of time before this will happen.