Organizations like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) have been fighting for decades to establish federal and state laws that specifically prohibit discrimination in employment based on a person’s weight.  According to a NAAFA report from 2007, the likelihood of weight-based employment discrimination is 12 times more likely for overweight adults, 37 times more likely for obese persons, and 100 times more likely for severely obese adults.  Yet to date, no federal legislation exists that specifically prohibits discrimination based on weight, and only one state (Michigan) and a handful of cities have passed laws that make weight-based discrimination illegal. 

However, obese individuals who believe they have suffered discrimination because of their weight may have a federal recourse in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A federal district court in Louisiana recently found that an employee who weighed 527 pounds at the time of her termination was “an individual with a disability” as defined under the ADA that was in effect prior to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.  Specifically, the court recognized that severe obesity is an impairment under the ADA and the plaintiff was actually disabled because her obesity caused her to suffer from diabetes and heart problems.

This district court ruling could mean that the over one-third of adults in this country who are obese may be considered disabled under the ADA.  This is even more likely under the ADA Amendments Act which expanded the meaning of “disabled” to include many more conditions than were previously covered prior to January 1, 2009 (when the ADA Amendments Act took effect).  Given the large number of obese individuals and those who suffer from weight-related medical conditions or illnesses, it is important for HR professionals to guide their employers to make it a practice and policy not to make employment decisions based on a person’s weight.  The only exceptions should be where they can show that the person is not qualified to perform for the job or where they can make out a case of business necessity for not hiring or terminating the obese employee — often a high hill to climb.  It is also important that employers not deny obese employees a reasonable accommodation when requested.  HR professionals are often key to identifying requests for accommodations and helping management consider what is both reasonable and practical for the business.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that everyone is protected in some way under the law from unfair treatment, and this is just one more example of how true that statement really is.