Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Is obesity a “disability” under the ADA ( Americans with Disabilities Act)

A federal court judge, the Honorable Stephen N. Limbaugh, Jr. of the Eastern District of Missouri, recently ruled, in Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Inc., that an employee’s severe obesity could constitute a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The plaintiff, Joseph Whittaker, alleged that America’s Car-Mart discharged him from his General Manager position because of his severe obesity and because his employer regarded him as being substantially limited in the major life activity of walking. Whittaker further contended that he was able to perform all of the essential functions of his job, with or without an accommodation. America’s Car-Mart moved to dismiss Whittaker’s disability discrimination claim on the grounds that severe obesity is not a “disability” under the ADA in the absence of an underlying physiological disorder.

Judge Limbaugh rejected America’s Car-Mart’s argument, keeping Whittaker’s case alive. The Court explained that America’s Car-Mart improperly relied on: (a) outdated case law based on the more restrictive approach that was applied before Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008; and (b) a statement in the EEOC’s Interpretive Guidance that “except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment,” which has since been omitted following the passage of the ADAAA. Judge Limbaugh pointed out that the EEOC takes the position that severe obesity is a disability under the ADA and does not require proof of an underlying physiological disorder.

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