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Are overweight employees due ‘disability’ rights?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Americans are a well-fed bunch, as statistics show, and now many overweight employees cite their extra baggage as a legally protected “disability.”

The good news: Employees carry a heavy burden of proof, especially in the 2nd Circuit. To claim ADA protection, employees must show that their weight stems from more than mere overindulgence. An underlying physiological abnormality must contribute to the poundage.

But here’s the catch: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects not only people with actual disabilities, but also those whom employers “regard as” or treat as having disabilities.

Best bet: Don’t mention a person’s weight unless you have an absolute business necessity. A stray comment may trigger an ADA lawsuit. Courts will judge each case on its own merits.

Recent case: Elliot Spiegel, a karate instructor, weighed more than 300 pounds. His doctors pronounced him “healthy as a horse” despite his weight.

When the karate studio fired him, Spiegel believed it was because of his weight. The owner once told Spiegel that, as a fat person, he had “no self-esteem and was weak.”

Spiegel sued, alleging his employer regarded him as disabled even though he was healthy. But the court disagreed, saying that the owner’s stereotyping didn’t indicate that he thought obesity prevented Spiegel from teaching karate or that the obesity was a physiologically caused disorder. The owner’s comments only indicated that he believed fat people are undisciplined. That’s not the same as thinking fat people are disabled. (Spiegel v. Schulmann, UAK Management Co., No. 03-CV-5088, ED NY, 2006)

Final note: The karate school could have saved itself the time and money of this legal hassle if its owner hadn’t shared his stereotypical views of overweight people. Remind managers and supervisors to keep their opinions to themselves; they have no way of knowing the real situation. If an underlying physiological condition is the cause, obesity may be a covered disability. 

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