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Employment Blog

Is Obesity a Disabling Condition?

A recent decision from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed whether obesity automatically qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In a decision filed by an applicant for employment who was ultimately denied employment because of his severe weight and body mass index, the Court of Appeals held that obesity (in and of itself) was not a covered condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the company could deny employment to an individual who was otherwise qualified to perform the job because of his obese weight because the weight was not considered to be the result of another psychological impairment.  The Court held that an individual’s weight is generally a physical characteristic that qualifies as a physical impairment but only if it falls outside the normal range of acceptable weight and it is the result of a psychological disorder.  Both of these requirements have to be met in order for an individual to be considered suffering from a disability.  If weight is considered outside the normal range but is not the result of some type of underlying psychological condition or disorder, the weight itself would not cause an individual to be considered disabled and therefore protected.  The company was able to show the morbid obesity of the applicant was a physical characteristic but it was not based upon some sort of psychological condition such as diabetes or a mental health disorder and therefore the applicant was not considered protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

This is a major victory for employers because it allows the employer to assess whether an individual has some type of a psychological disorder that has resulted in the morbid obesity instead of having to consider an individual as a disabled person simply because of the excess weight of the person.  Many courts have been leaning toward a requirement that morbid obesity be considered a disability in and of itself without linkage to some type of psychological condition.  Employers must be careful, however, to not “perceive” the obese person as having an impairment which could provide protection under the ADA.  Employers should have specific guidelines as to what levels of obesity would be acceptable for positions that are being filled by the company.  For now, employers have some ability to make employment-related decisions without being automatically considered to be in violation of the ADA.