Obesity Can Be a Disability, Says European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice has just issued an opinion holding that obesity can be a disability requiring employers to “take appropriate measures . . . to enable a person with a disability to have access to, participate in, or advance in employment, or to undergo training, unless such measures would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer.” The Court further held that a disability determination “does not depend on the extent to which a person may or may not have contributed to the onset of his disability.”

This case concerned 350-pound Danish “childminder” (apparently some sort of daycare worker who takes care of children at his home) who was terminated by the local municipality for which he worked. The municipality denies that it terminated Karsten Kaltoft because of his weight, though there are reports that Kaltoft was unable to bend over to help children tie their shoes. The municipality indicates that there were fewer children that needed care and thus it let Kaltoft go on grounds other than his weight.

The European Court of Justice will leave it to the lower courts to sort out whether Kaltoft is actually disabled. If the lower court finds that he is, and Kaltoft further makes a colorable claim that he has been wronged because principles of equal treatment have not been applied to him, the burden will be on the municipality to prove there has been no equal treatment violation.

This decision puts European employers in a bind. Any suggestions that an employee join a gym or eat healthier could be taken as discrimination. To accommodate obese employees, employers might be required to give them parking places close to the building, provide extra-large chairs, etc. There are also implications for governments. Since obesity can be a disability, there will surely be many applications in the coming years for government disability benefits.

According to the World Heath Organization, obesity effects 10 percent to 30 percent of European adults.  The ECJ decision will no doubt be a boon for lawyers and others seeking “equal rights” for roughly a quarter of the European population.

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