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Ninth Circuit Finds Obesity a Protected Disability Under State Law

    Client Alerts
  • February 12, 2020

In recent years, a number of federal courts have drawn differing conclusions with regard to whether obesity is a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. While some courts have reached this conclusion, others have characterized obesity as a mere condition and not a disability absent evidence of related medical issues. Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave plaintiffs an alternative means to pursue these claims while indicating that it also considers obesity to be a protected disability under the ADA.

In Taylor v. Burlington Northern Railroad Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff alleged that the defendant rescinded a job offer made to him because it regarded him as disabled due to his weight. The plaintiff sued under Washington’s state disability discrimination law, and the district court dismissed the complaint, concluding that that law does not consider obesity to be a protected impairment. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit first asked the Washington Supreme Court for its opinion on this question.

The state court held that obesity is a protected disability under the state discrimination law. As a result, the Ninth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded the case to the district court. In its opinion, the Ninth Circuit indicated that the ADA is at least as broad as the Washington law, meaning that it would look favorably on claims alleging obesity as the basis for a discrimination claim under federal law.

Plaintiffs in federal appellate circuits that have found obesity excluded from the ADA’s definition of disability – the Carolinas fall under this category – will now likely use state anti-discrimination laws as an alternative means of seeking redress. In situations where the plaintiff does not actually suffer from any obesity-related medical complication, he or she can claim that the employer regarded them as disabled due to their weight.