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Obesity and the ADA: Sometimes It Does Not Matter


In an August 2023 decision, an employee alleges that his employer discriminated against him based on his disability (morbid obesity) when it terminated his employment.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

But the consensus was that morbid obesity is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Do not forget about state and local employment laws.

The defendant claimed that the plaintiff's obesity does not qualify as a protected disability under Connecticut state law because the plaintiff had not identified an underlying condition that caused it. It also argued that the plaintiff's obesity does not qualify as a disability because he has not pointed to any physical symptoms related to obesity that impacted his work consistently.

Unlike the ADA, some state laws, like the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA), do not require the complainant to prove that he is substantially limited in a major life activity.

In this case (Begin v. Becton, Dickinson & Co.), the plaintiff presented evidence that he was morbidly obese for twenty years and suffered from sleep apnea, hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. Plus, the plaintiff took leave from work to have bariatric surgery. These facts were enough to demonstrate that his morbid obesity qualifies as a "chronic physical handicap, infirmity or impairment" under state law.

The plaintiff wins, right?

Not so fast. The defendant prevailed on the disability discrimination claims because of something that employment lawyers and human resources constantly preach but often falls on deaf ears.

Managers should document performance issues.

The Becton emphasized to the court that the Begin's performance issues began soon after his hire and continued through his bariatric surgery up to his termination of employment. In other words, the plaintiff's feedback did not turn negative after he got weight loss surgery. His performance was generally bad.

And the company had the receipts (i.e., emails and a performance review) to back it up.

But, lamented Begin, the post-surgery feedback was more serious. For example, after the surgery, the Becton reassigned one of his duties and terminated him. That is nefarious!

Not really.

One isolated instance of encouragement a couple of months into Mr. Begin's tenure does not negate this trend or imply a discriminatory motive. "Where timing is the only basis for a claim of retaliation, and gradual adverse job actions began well before the plaintiff had ever engaged in any protected activity, an inference of retaliation does not arise."

In other words: You were not very good at your job. What did you expect to happen if you did not improve? Consistent, documented, negative feedback severed the causal link between the plaintiff's disability-related request for leave and his termination.

Posted In: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Quit, Resigned, Termination of Employment, etc.; Workplace Policies/Rules

Want to know more? Read the full article by at The Employer Handbook

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