Is Obesity Protected From Employment Discrimination?


The headline certainly was eye-catching and intriguing: “Can an Opera Singer Be Too Fat?” The article detailed the dismissal of a world-renowned opera singer from the production of Adriane on Navos because the producer had decided she was simply too fat. Then there is the news story of the “Borgata Babes”-22 New Jersey casino cocktail waitresses who claimed they were forced to endure weigh-ins and unhealthy eating habits to keep their jobs. They filed suit claiming discrimination-and lost.

These news stories raise the question of whether a person’s appearance, more particularly their weight, can be a cause for a refusal to hire or a termination. Everyone knows that obesity rates in this country have been steadily rising and California is no exception. A 2008 study from Yale University revealed that weight discrimination rivaled race discrimination in the workplace, with race discrimination being the top charge filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The evolving law

If you are fortunate enough to live in San Francisco, weight discrimination is prohibited by what has been called the city’s “Fat Ordinance.” Similarly, those living or working in Santa Cruz are protected by a city ordinance that prohibits differential treatment as a result of a person’s height, weight or physical characteristics.

What about the rest of California? In a recent case filed in federal court in Texas, a man claimed he was fired from his job as a materials handler after almost 16 years because he was overweight-and not just a little overweight. What is significant about this case is that the Federal Equal Opportunity Commission agreed that the firing violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. Until recently, courts had routinely held that obesity could not be a disability unless there was an underlying medical condition. Recent amendments to the ADA, however, layout a much lower threshold for what is a “disability” and focuses on the effect of obesity on a person’s activities of daily living. In a 2011 case, a Louisiana court in EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, Inc. specifically held that severe obesity was a disability under the ADA and did not require proof of a physiological basis for it.

In addition, the sexual discrimination provisions of the Federal Civil Rights Act might be implicated where different weight standards are applied to women as opposed to men, or the Act’s provisions against race discrimination where a weight standard might have a disparate impact on African Americans or Latinos.

Seeking experienced legal representation

If you believe you have suffered discrimination as a result of weight issues, you are encouraged to seek the advice of an experienced California employment attorney who understands the complex legal issues and the evolving law.

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