Missouri Judge Refuses To Dismiss Obesity Case

By Dana Byerly 05/01/14

Because of the American Medical Association reclassifying obesity as a disease, the effects have had a big impact on the judicial system as well as the medical community.

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When the American Medical Association reclassified obesity as a disease last year, the decision not only impacted the medical community’s treatment of the condition, but also the legal community’s discussion of its protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last week, the issue rippled into a Missouri district court, where a judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming job discrimination based on obesity.      

Although Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart is not the first case claiming unlawful termination based on obesity discrimination, it is among a string of cases making their way through the courts. Currently, Michigan is the only state that specifically bans weight discrimination, though Massachusetts has similar legislation pending on the issue. Since there is no federal law specifically prohibiting obesity discrimination, people have sued under the ADA with varying degrees of success.

Success in most cases has been based on a court being able to determine an employee was “impaired,” according to ADA guidelines. America’s Car-Mart lawyers argued Joseph Whittaker’s obesity did not qualify as a true disability under ADA guidelines. However, Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau, Mo., refuted that argument by claiming it was based on old case law established before the ADA was amended in 2008. Thus, the judge refused to dismiss the case. Among other changes, the 2008 amendments broadened the definition of “disability.”

Whittaker’s lawsuit claims he proved his ability to perform the duties of his job as a car dealership manager without limitations, but that the company unfairly fired him and “in retaliation for the charge of discrimination, threatened to terminate business with other entities if those entities employ plaintiff.” 

Since June 2013, when the association reclassified obesity as a disease, the number of Americans potentially covered under the ADA includes the 33 million people diagnosed as obese. Federal law requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations if the accommodations allow a qualified employee with a qualifying disability to successfully perform the job in question.” Individuals with obesity would need to show substantially limited impairment in performing everyday functions such as walking or lifting. 

“Weight, in and of itself, is not a protected characteristic under federal law,” said Tanya Goldman, a trial attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Baltimore area. “It is only where a person’s weight rises to the level of being an impairment, might that person be disabled. At that point, the individual would still have to show that her weight substantially limits her in a major life activity, that she is qualified and that the adverse employment action was taken because of the disability.”

Jeff Weintraub, an attorney who represents employers in labor and employment cases, said: “In every case, there is an accommodation. The only question is whether it is reasonable for your company.”

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Dana Byerly is on staff at The Fix, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News and The Oklahoman among others. She last wrote about federal classification of marijuana. She can be found on Twitter.