New York City employers may soon find out whether merely being obese is a disability under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). That’s because the federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has sent a case back to the trial court for just that determination.
If the lower court concludes the NYCHRL does cover obesity, New York City employers will face three standards for disability—the ADA, New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the NYCHRL.
Recent case: Elliot Spiegel claims he was fired from his position as a karate instructor because his employer believed he was too fat for the job.
He sued, alleging ADA, NYSHRL and NYCHRL disability discrimination.
Under the ADA, he had to show he had a condition that substantially impaired a major life function—a tough task considering that he had been a successful karate instructor. Under the NYSHRL, he had to prove that he had an underlying medical condition that made it impossible to lose weight—an arguably easier task.
The federal appeals court then looked at the NYCHRL, which has a much broader definition of disability. It covers “an impairment of any system of the body.” The court sent the case back to the trial court to decide whether obesity is such an impairment. (Spiegel, et al., v. Schulmann, et al., No. 06-5914, 2nd Cir., 2010)
Final note: Always check local statutes in addition to state and federal laws. Cities often pass employment laws designed to plug perceived holes in state or federal discrimination laws. It may be a logistical nightmare, but you have no choice whether to follow local laws. As an employer, you are responsible for understanding your obligations in every location where you have employees.
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