Extreme Obesity Alone is Not A Disability
We have finally received a decision about obesity from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals which governs employers in the state of Wisconsin. In this decision, the Court of Appeals held that extreme obesity, by itself and alone, does not constitute a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act. We do not have a clear decision from the Equal Rights Division on this topic so hopefully the ERD will follow the same reasoning as the Court of Appeals.
The decision holds that an individual suffering from extreme obesity, meaning significantly overweight for his/her height, does not constitute a disability for which ADA protections must be provided. Employers must be careful, however, because there are two circumstances where the decision could be different: (1) instances where the obesity is the consequence of a psychological disorder or impairment, and (2) situations where the employer perceives the employee to be disabled because of his/her health condition being that of extreme obesity. Under either of these scenarios, the employee may be afforded protection from discrimination.
Employers need to be very careful about perceiving an individual who is extremely obese from being considered impaired or in some way unable to perform his/her duties. While the employer, under this recent opinion, would appear to have the right to determine that the employee cannot perform the regular duties of his/her position, there is always the concern that the employer is thereby perceiving the employee to be disabled. In order to avoid that perception, the employer must make a reasonable and fact-based analysis of the ability of the employee to perform his/her regular duties even with the challenges of an extreme weight condition.
Employers must always be cautious when making employment decisions based upon the physical characteristics of an employee