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Is Obesity a Disability under the ADA?

Is severe obesity a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act? A federal court in Missouri thinks so.

Joseph Whittaker, who suffered from severe obesity, claimed that his employer, America's Car-Mart, Inc. fired him because of his disability and, in retaliation for the charge of discrimination, threatened to terminate business with other potential employers if they employed him. He alleged in his complaint that his employer regarded him as having such impairment and as being substantially limited in a major life activity, walking, as a result of his obesity. He was, however, able to perform the essential functions of his position with or without accommodation. America's Car-Mart tried to have the complaint dismissed, arguing that Whittaker failed to prove that he suffered from a disability as defined by the ADA.

The court rejected the employer's assertion that Whittaker failed to plausibly assert that he suffered from an actual disability under the ADA since he did not allege that his condition of severe obesity was related to an underlying physiological disorder or condition. The court found that the employer erroneously relied upon case law based on the more restrictive approach that was applied before Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). Moreover, its reliance on a statement in the EEOC's Interpretive Guidance — that "except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment" — was misplaced since that language was omitted following the ADAAA.

Utilizing the current, more expansive definition of disability under the ADAAA, the court held that the Whittaker's pleading was sufficient to give rise to an inference that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Specifically, he asserted that suffered from severe obesity, which he alleged was a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA. He also contended that his employer regarded him as having such impairment and as being substantially limited in one or more major life activities, including, but not limited to, walking. Based on the substantial expansion of the ADA by the ADAAA, the employer's assertion that his weight could not be considered a disability was misplaced. The employer's motion to dismiss was denied.

The takeaway? Obesity is a disability protected under the ADA, especially due to the fact that the law was expanded by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008.

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