AMA Decision May Increase Obesity Discrimination Claims

Recently, the American Medical Association (“AMA”) made a decision to classify obesity as a disease, rather than a condition as previously classified.  Employment law officials have became increasingly concerned about the outcomes of this decision.  The repercussions of this decision could be immense and potentially very costly for employers since one-third of American adults are classified as obese and another one-third is considered overweight. Dr. Patrice Harris, an AMA board member, explained the reclassification: “Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue.”  While the AMA’s new definition doesn’t have any force of law, it is highly likely that it will make it easier for an obese employee to argue that they are disabled.  Moreover, employees who are as few as 30 pounds over the recommended body weight for their age, sex, and height, are more likely to be recognized as disabled according to their rights under the 2008 amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

For instance, last year a disability discrimination lawsuit was settled where the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission was suing a BAE Systems subsidiary in Houston (see EEOC v. BAE Systems, No. 11-cv-3497). BAE was charged with discriminating against an employee who was fired because BAE considered him disabled as a result of his obesity, regardless of the fact that he could perform his job.  Kathy Butchee, the EEOC’s senior trial attorney, stated in the EEOC’s press release: “The law protects morbidly obese employees and applicants from being subjected to discrimination because of their obesity.  So long as an employee can perform the essential job duties of a position, with or without reasonable accommodation, the employee should be allowed to work on the same basis as any non-obese employee.  Employers cannot fire disabled employees based on perceptions and prejudice. “   BAE Systems paid the fired employee $55,000 and covered his outplacement services.  The company also had to train managers in disability law compliance and post anti-discrimination notices.

To protect themselves, employers should avoid implying in any form that the employee’s weight suggests the employee cannot do his or her job.  Moreover, if an employee requests any reasonable accommodation based on their weight, employers shouldn’t ignore such requests.

In the meantime, human resource officials, as well as employment law attorneys, are waiting to see if the EEOC expands its definition of a disability beyond its current distinction of “morbidly obese” which means that someone is twice their normal body weight.  However, even if the EEOC refrains from expanding its definition to include obesity in the near future, employers should be aware of potential cases, similar to the case mentioned above, where employees which are overweight could still be protected under the ADA.

For more information on this subject contact Joseph Messer at jmesser@messerstrickler.com, or you may call Joe at (312) 334-3440.