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When is obesity a disability?

People with disabilities enjoy certain workplace protections -- but is obesity really a disability in California?

Actually, it depends. An appellate court's ruling on a recent case laid out the conditions under which obesity can be considered a disability. Employers need to take note and adjust their thinking accordingly.

The specific case involved a woman who was fired from her 15-year position at an athletic club, allegedly due to a general manager's bias against her weight. The woman had suffered from obesity most of her life due to her genetics, but it hadn't stopped her from working her way up the ladder at the club. She eventually took on management duties that kept her working more than 40 hours a week. Although her weight affected her ability to walk, stand and perform other basic daily tasks, she constantly received bonuses at work based on her performance and positive work reviews.

Then a new general manager entered the picture. The plaintiff alleged that he was openly biased against her, refused to allow her to apply for a certain job position despite her qualifications and cut her hours without reason. He even demonstrated his bias by ordering all employees to wear a company shirt -- but refused to order one in the employee's size (and subsequently criticized her for being out of uniform).

A 1993 decision by the California Supreme Court held that obesity could be considered a disability if medical evidence showed that the person's weight was the result of a physiological condition, affected at least one basic bodily system and caused a limitation with at least one major life activity. In this case, however, the woman's employer basically argued that "bad genes" wasn't a physiological condition.

Essentially, after a lot of legal wrangling and an initial loss in the lower court, the appellate court sided with the plaintiff on the issue of whether her weight was a protected disability.

For employers, this case serves as a caution. The mechanism of obesity in humans isn't fully understood -- and employers may risk a lot if they take it upon themselves to decide that someone's obesity doesn't have a physiological basis. For overweight employees, this ruling now provides added protection if they faced bias and disability discrimination at work.

If you're the victim of disability discrimination at work for any reason, you can fight back. Learn more about your options today.

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