Thursday, June 20, 2013

Classification of obesity as a “disease” has huge employment law implications

News broke yesterday that the American Medical Association voted to re-classify obesity from a condition to a disease.

Conventional wisdom has been that normal, run-of-the-mill obesity, unlinked to an underlying medical condition such as diabetes, is not a disability protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This decision by the AMA, however, will likely flip that conventional wisdom on its head. The ADA, as amended in 2009, is so broad that it covers virtually any diagnosed medical condition as a “disability.” Now, employers will have to consider reasonable accommodations for anyone with a body mass index of 30 or over. Also, anyone who appears to have that BMI will have potential protections from terminations and other adverse actions related to that perceived “disease.”

While this expanded coverage of the ADA is problematic, this issue raises a deeper, more troubling problem. The goals of the ADA are commendable. Yet, as we expand the ADA to cover non-traditional medical conditions, a backlash is inevitable. Protecting the unworthy will erode the desire to protect the worthy. Every time an overweight worker sues for disability discrimination will cost those suffering from illnesses that deserve to be protected.

Congress was correct in amending the ADA to restore the original intent of the statute. Obesity protections, however, illustrate that perhaps those amendments went too far.