Recently, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana held that “severe obesity” qualifies as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The court also held that someone who is “severely obese” (defined by the EEOC as someone with a body weight of more that 100% over the norm) need not show that they have some underlying physiological disorder causing the obesity in order to be protected by the ADA. This is a signficant departure from many former court decisions which held that simply being obese did not constitute a disability under the ADA. The court notes that while being overwieght is not, in and of itself, a disability, those individuals who are severely obese or have an underlying physiological condition causing the obesity would qualify as disabled under the ADA.
The Louisiana Court applied recent amendments to the ADA that took effect in January 2009 which, among other things, signficantly broadened the definition of “disability.” Prior to these amendments, the courts had interpreted the definition of “disability” in the ADA very narrowly, denying ADA protection to numerous individuals with very serious disabilities like diabetes, multiple sclerosis and cancer. The text of the ADA amendments specifically states that they were intended to overturn two U.S. Supreme Court opinions that excluded numerous individuals from the ADA’s protection. An instructional chart setting forth some of the differences between the old version of the ADA as interpreted by the courts and the new ADA amendments can be found here. In sum, these new amendments were intended to move the focus away from whether the employee is disabled and turn attention to whether the employer was making discriminatory decisions based on an employee’s impairment. In my experience, the amendments are having their intended effect.
There is one interesting side note to the enactment of the ADA amendments. The amendments clearly broadened the coverage of the ADA to many more people. This, in theory, could increase the number of employees (individuals) who may decide to sue their employers (businesses) for discrimination. While one would assume that typical political battle lines would be drawn in favor of, and in opposition to, the ADA amendments, that was not the case. Remarkably, as noted in various articles and elsewhere, the ADA amendments passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, were signed by President Bush and were born from a collaboration between disability, civil rights and employer groups. I wonder if these amendments would pass today?