Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Is “fat” the new protected class?

This week, Michael Haberman, at HR Observations, continues his series on “isms” with a post on what he calls “fatism” (or discrimination against the overweight). I found this post to be timely in light of recent headlines made by the Cleveland Clinic’s CEO that he would not hire obese people if the law allowed him to do so (he has since retracted those criticized comments).

Conventional wisdom says that with the exception of the morbidly obese, obesity is not a characteristic protected by the anti-discrimination laws. Indeed, in 2006, the 6th Circuit said as much in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines [PDF], holding that “to constitute an ADA impairment, a person’s obesity, even morbid obesity,
must be the result of a physiological condition.” However, on Jan. 1, 2009, the ADA Amendments Act took effect. The ADAAA broadens what qualifies as a “disability” under the ADA.

It remains up in the air exactly how broadly this definition has been expanded. I do not believe it has been expanded so far as to encompass things such non-physiological obesity. We will have to wait and see, however, on the breadth of the ADAAA until courts and the EEOC start weighing in on exactly how broad the definition of “disability” has become.

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