Obese employees can be classed as disabled following court ruling

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Obesity can constitute a disability in certain circumstances, the EU's highest court has ruled.

The European Court of Justice has today (18 December 2014) ruled that obesity can constitute a “disability” in a decision that has potentially significant implications for employers. 

The case (Karsten Kaltoft v Kommunernes Landsforening acting on behalf of the Municipality of Billund) concerned Mr Kaltoft who had worked as a childminder in Denmark for 15 years. He was dismissed in November 2010. Throughout his employment, Mr Kaltoft weighed around 25 stone and had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 54. According to the World Health Organisation, BMI in excess of 40 is categorised as class 3 obesity (the most severe category) described as extreme or morbid obesity.

Matthew Smith, an employment lawyer and partner with law firm Blake Morgan explains what this decision mean for employers; “In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 provides that a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It is important to note that obesity by itself will not mean that a person has a disability and obese people may not suffer any health problems at all. What will be relevant is the extent of the obesity and its impact on normal day-to-day activities and the nature of the work undertaken. This will need to be judged on a case-by-case basis.”

“The significance for employers is that, if an employee satisfies the definition of disability, then the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act may arise. In the context of obesity and disability, this could mean adjusting workstations or duties or (in an appropriate case) providing a car parking space close to the office, for instance.”       

The reason given for Mr Kaltoft’s dismissal was the decline in the number of children to look after. Obesity was not mentioned in the dismissal letter and Mr Kaltoft was not told why he, out of several childminders employed by the Municipality, was selected for dismissal. Following his dismissal Mr Kaltoft brought proceedings that he had been unlawfully discriminated against because of his obesity.

Agreeing with an earlier Opinion of the Advocate General, the ECJ held the Equal Treatment Framework Directive for combating discrimination in employment (which underlies the UK Equality Act) extends to “disability”; and the term “disability” covers limitations which result from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments which may hinder the worker’s full and effective participation in professional life, compared to other workers without that condition. Obesity could therefore constitute a disability.

Mr Kaltoft’s case will now go back to the Danish court for it to assess whether or not his obesity hindered his full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, in which case he has a disability. Interestingly, one factor here will be that Mr Kaltoft had worked for 15 years as a childminder and the question will be whether or not his obesity in fact hindered his work at all.