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No substantial limitation? Obesity isn’t an ADA disability

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Even as America’s waistline expands, employers can take some comfort in knowing that obesity, by itself, does not constitute a disability under the ADA.

The bad news: There are 127 million overweight adults in the United States, and 60 million of them are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An obese person has a body mass index greater than 30.

The good news for employers: Unless an employee’s obesity substantially limits his ability to perform a major life function, he isn’t covered by the ADA. As the following case shows, having medical complications that may be related to obesity isn’t enough either.

Recent case: Allan Greenberg, who is obese and has diabetes and other medical problems, worked as a lineman for BellSouth. Because of his weight, his supervisor restricted the amount of climbing work assigned to Greenberg. Linemen can weigh no more than 275 pounds because the equipment they use is rated to hold no more than 300 pounds.

The trouble started when BellSouth hired an outside company to track linemen’s weight. Greenberg’s manager explained that from now on, he would strictly enforce the weight limit—Greenberg would either have to lose weight or lose his job. He was given 25 weeks to lose at least 50 pounds.

Greenberg failed and lost his job. He then sued, alleging he had a disability—one that could have been accommodated with a stronger ladder.

But Greenberg testified that he could still do housework, walk, dress and feed himself. Medications controlled his health conditions, including his diabetes. The bottom line, according to the court: He wasn’t substantially impaired and therefore wasn’t entitled to any accommodations. (Greenberg v. BellSouth Communications, No. 06-15134, 11th Cir., 2007)

Final note: Judge each obesity case on its merits. Having trouble breathing or walking may elevate obesity into a disability.

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