Courts beginning to accept obesity as a disability

McAfee & Taft labor and employment attorney Charlie Plumb was featured in The Oklahoman discussing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recent release of its final regulations concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. While it’s not surprising that the regulations follow Congress’ mandate to broadly expand the definition of “disability” in favor of those seeking the ADA’s protection, he said many employers may be surprised to know that courts reviewing post-ADAAA claims are now willing to recognize obesity as a disability.

Plumb explained that prior to the enactment of the ADAAA, obesity in and of itself was not considered a disability unless it created physiological or medical conditions that were themselves disabling. As evidenced in one recent case, Lowe v. American Eurocopters, LLC, the court accepted the plaintiff’s claim that her obesity was a disability and allowed her to proceed with her disability discrimination and harassment lawsuit against her former employer.

Because it will be much easier for employees who seek protection under the ADA to demonstrate that they meet the definition of disability, the impact on employers defending discrimination lawsuits is expected to be significant, said Plumb.  “Employers should assume the EEOC and the courts will increasingly treat conditions that weren’t previously viewed as disabilities as ADA-protected. The ability to defend a claim by arguing that an employee’s condition is not a ‘disability’ is greatly reduced.  Instead, employers should focus on the nondiscriminatory reasons — namely, why they took the action they did — for their employment decisions.”