In recent years, federal courts have increasingly split over whether obesity in and of itself is a qualifying medical condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC and some courts have concluded that obesity is a physical impairment that constitutes a disability, even if the employee does not demonstrate medical complications. Others have taken the view that obesity is a condition, not an impairment, and therefore does not necessarily limit major life activities.
Last month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals joined this debate, agreeing with those courts that have excluded obesity alone as an ADA disability. In Lumar v. Monsanto Co., the plaintiff alleged that he was harassed and discriminated against based on his morbid obesity. The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on the basis that the plaintiff never alleged any significant limitations on his life activities arising from his weight. The court also rejected EEOC guidance as inconsistent with the underlying ADAAA statutory requirements for protected disabilities.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys will likely be able to avoid dismissal on this basis by pleading some sort of medical complication related to obesity, assuming that the plaintiff can still perform the essential functions of the job. Another option would be to claim that the employer regarded the plaintiff as disabled due to their weight, although this claim would require specific proof such as statements or unnecessary exclusion from certain job duties. Employers should make clear that any adverse actions that involve obese employees are based on documented business reasons unrelated to any perceptions or assumptions regarding their medical status or abilities.