Obesity as Perceived Disability

March 8, 2018

I recently did a blog about obesity as a disability under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act.  I concluded that the condition of obesity did not automatically constitute a disability although courts could find that an employer discriminated against an obese person if it perceived the person to be adversely impacted by the obese condition and unable to perform a major life function such as working.  A recent decision from the Northern District of Illinois Federal Court acknowledged this very consideration.

In this decision, the employer regarded an applicant for an equipment operator job as a “ticking time bomb” because of his obese condition and denied him a job because of concerns that his condition could cause an accident.  The Federal District Court acknowledged that most courts have held that simply the condition of obesity does not constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act; however, the court denied a summary judgment for the employer saying the employer may have violated the ADA by treating the employee as if the employee was disabled.  The Court acknowledged the employer was anticipating a worst-case scenario and thereby identified the applicant as a stereotype of a disabled person even though the applicant did not suffer from a protected condition.  This is the heart of the “perceived” standard that applies under the Americans with Disabilities Act and would likely apply under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act.

The matter is now proceeding to a trial to determine whether or not the company violated the ADA.  The decision again shows the need for an employer to be very cautious and careful when analyzing applicants for a position and avoiding any claim that the company perceived the applicant to be suffering from a disability.

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