An EU court has ruled that obesity can be considered a disability. The ruling is likely to remain controversial, as it could trigger discrimination lawsuits. Although the court did not specifically designate obesity as a protected class, they did rule that excessive weight could cause disability in the workplace.
In their landmark decision, The Court of Justice of the European Union determined that obesity shall be considered a disability if it interferes with “full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.”
Attorney Jacob Sand said the ruling will “trigger certain protections for employees.” As reported by Reuters, the ruling could also make it easier for employees to win discrimination lawsuits.
Employment attorney Stefan Martin explains that the ruling will not prevent employers from dismissing overweight employees. However, employers are encouraged to make accommodations for employees who are hindered by excess weight.
The EU obesity ruling was triggered by a Danish case, in which a former employee alleges he was dismissed from employment due to his weight.
Karsten Kaltoft said he has been overweight as long as he can remember. However, his weight never hindered his ability to perform his job as a child care worker.
In 1995, Kaltoft was hired by the Municipality of Bullund, Denmark. Although he maintained a weight of approximately 350 pounds, he retained his position for a period of 15 years. In 2010, Kaltoft was terminated by the municipality.
As reported by Economic Times, Kaltoft is convinced that he was dismissed because he is obese. As the Municipality of Bullund denied Kaltoft’s claim, the case was forwarded to the European Court of Justice.
In their controversial ruling, the EU court said obesity can be considered a disability. However, they tasked the Danish court with determining whether Kaltoft’s dismissal was related to his weight. If the court rules that Kaltoft’s weight constitutes a disability, he could be awarded monetary compensation.
In 2008, the World Health Organization estimated that “roughly 23 percent of European women and 20 percent of European men were obese.” As obesity plagues millions of employees worldwide, human rights organizations have pushed for anti-discrimination laws.
In many countries, employers are prohibited from discriminating based on age, race, and sex. In contrast, federal law does not specifically prevent discrimination based on weight.
Some states, including Michigan, have “enacted legislation that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person’s weight.” However, the EU obesity ruling could open the door for similar decisions elsewhere.
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