Over the past decade, obesity in the United States has been gaining more and more attention. In addition to health concerns, there are legal implications to this growing epidemic. Specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may provide legal redress for the growing number of individuals for whom obesity has threatened employment. Generally speaking, while it may be difficult for an obese person to prevail on a disability discrimination claim absent a physical reason for the disability, such as a gland problem, it may be easier for an obese person to prevail on a claim of perceived disability discrimination; that an employer made assumptions about his or her capabilities based upon stereotypes associated with weight.
For an individual to prevail under the ADA, he/she must meet one of three requirements: (1) that he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) that he/she has a record of such an impairment; or (3) that he/she is regarded as having such an impairment. In EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 18 AD Cases 641 (6th Cir. 2006), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that morbid obesity alone does not constitute a physical impairment that an employer could regard as substantially limiting a major life activity. However, the Sixth Circuit stated that obesity resulting from a physiological cause might qualify as a disability. In other words, a plaintiff with a gland problem, hormone imbalance or other physical problem that could trigger obesity, may be able to prevail on a disability claim for obesity.
A plaintiff may be more likely to prevail on a claim under the third prong, that he/she is regarded as disabled by an employer. In Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, the Supreme Court stated two conditions for being perceived as disabled: (1) a covered entity mistakenly believes that a person has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or (2) a covered entity mistakenly believes that an acutal, non-limiting impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities. To prevail, an employee must show that the employer believes that the employee has a substantially limiting impairment that the employee does not actually have, or that the employee has a substantially limiting impairment when, in fact, the employee's impairment does not actually significantly limit him/her. In other words, perceived disability discrimination tends to result from an employer's assumptions about an employee's capabilities based upon a stereotype, and such assumptions are not tolerated under the law.