Is obesity a disability that should be accommodated under the ADA?


An obese account manager is required to travel to visit clients as part of his duties. He recently told his supervisor that his weight now makes it difficult and painful to walk more than short distances. He asked to have his client visits assigned to a coworker, though he would continue servicing the accounts generally. He also asked to be assigned a parking space close to the building, so he would not have to walk from the distant employee lot. The employee has performed well but has a history of asking for “special treatment,” and his supervisor is frustrated because he believes the weight issues are due to the employee’s lack of self control. Should the supervisor grant the requests?


When faced with an accommodation request, a prudent employer should treat morbid obesity as a physical impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the impairment substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking), grant the employee’s request for reasonable accommodations. What is reasonable depends on the circumstances. For example, the employer is not required to change the essential functions of the employee’s job. If visiting clients is an essential function and all account managers are required to do so, then it would likely be okay to refuse his request to assign that duty to a coworker. On the other hand, providing closer parking for employees with mobility impairments is frequently considered a reasonable accommodation.

Note that this area of law is changing. Like the supervisor, judges historically viewed obesity as a personal choice, and obese employees had difficulty convincing judges that they were disabled under the ADA unless the obesity was due to a physiological disorder. However, this view appears to be changing under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). For example, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological disorder may be a “physical or mental impairment” if the weight is outside “normal range” and affects “one or more body systems” as defined by 29 C.F.R. Sec. 1630.2(h)(1). The court drew on the ADAAA and the various EEOC interpretations to support its conclusion, noting that whether the impairment is a “disability” would turn on whether it substantially limited or was regarded as substantially limiting a major life activity.

A federal district court in Mississippi discussed this shift in the law. In pre-ADAAA cases, courts typically ruled that obesity was not a disability under the ADA, and the EEOC’s interpretive guidance at the time provided that, except in “rare circumstances,” obesity was not a disabling impairment. However, in the court’s view, the ADAAA changed the analysis by expanding what “substantially limits” and “major life activities” mean. In the case before the court, the employee alleged that her obesity substantially limited the major life activity of walking. She also alleged that she was ridiculed and fired because of her obesity. The court found that sufficient to state an ADA claim.

Source: CCH WorkDay Blog: Even if you consider obesity to be a voluntary condition, be prudent and treat it as a physical impairment under the ADA, July 10, 2012,; BNSF Railway Co v. Feit (MontSCt 2012) No. 11-0463; Lowe v. American Eurocopter, LLC (DMiss 2010) No. 1:10CV24-A-D.

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