Earlier in the Northern summer the American Medical Association (AMA) declared that obesity was a disease. “Recognising obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue,” Patrice Harris, AMA board member, said in a statement.
This has sparked the suggestion that, as a result, obese Americans will be more likely to be recognised as having a disability with the attendant rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the AMA’s classification has no force in law, it may make it easier for employees to challenge employers’ decisions, such as termination or a lack of reasonable accommodations, in court as unlawful discrimination on the basis that their obesity is a disability.
“The AMA’s action last week is sure to inspire a spate of new suits which claim that the disease of obesity is a disability under the ADA – citing the American Medical Association,” Richard Cohen, partner with Fox Rothschild, wrote in an opinion piece.
And the first lawsuit has now been filed by a man from Missouri who has sued his former employer for allegedly firing him because of his weight. The plaintiff claims that severe obesity is a physical impairment that falls within the definition of a disability under US law. He also alleges that while he was competent in his former position, his employer unfairly regarded him as limited because he had difficulty walking.
Around one quarter of adults in New Zealand are classified as obese, according to the Ministry of Health, meaning that the legal ramifications of such a change were it to occur in New Zealand would be vast. However, earlier in the year, employment lawyer Catherine Stewart told HRM Online that obesity alone is unlikely to be classified as a disability.
The law has not yet been tested here, but Stewart suggested that the definition of ‘disability’ in New Zealand law has more to do with causes than effects. “If this is correct, then an employee bringing a discrimination claim would first need to establish that the disability is caused by some physical, mental, anatomical or other factor referred to in the definition,” she said.
“However, it is also possible to conceive of a situation where a person’s obesity is of such a nature that it leads to an actual illness or impairment, for example: diabetes or loss or malfunction of a part of the body,” Stewart added.