European Court: Obesity may sometimes qualify as a disability

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News from Europe

The European Court of Justice ruled December 18 that in some circumstances a persons’ obesity may be so significant as to qualify as a disability under European Union law.

Karsten Kaltoft worked for 15 years as a child care worker for the Municipality of Billund in Denmark. During this time, he never weighed less than 352 pounds. After being fired in 2010, Kaltoft sued in a Danish court, alleging that he was discriminated on the basis of his obesity.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person can not qualify as having a disability on the basis of their obesity alone. Similarly, no European Union treaty or the Equal Treatment in Employment Directive, a 2000 directive that prohibits disability discrimination in EU member states, specify obesity as a protected category. Directives, which are created by the European Commission, are binding on all countries in the 28-member union.

The Danish court referred the case to the European Court of Justice, the body charged with interpreting EU directives.

Although the Court found that there is no stand-alone prohibition against obesity discrimination under the directive, the limitations created by Kaltoft’s may entitle him to protections from employers under the Directive.

“In the event that, under given circumstances, the obesity of the worker concerned entails a limitation which results in particular from physical, mental or psychological impairments that in interaction with various barriers may hinder the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, and the limitation is a long-term one, obesity can be covered by the concept of ‘disability’ within the meaning of Directive 2000/78,” the Court wrote in its decision.

The case has now been remanded back to the Danish court for further proceedings, to determine whether Kaltoft is entitled to damages under these guidelines.

The state of Michigan is the only state in the United States with a specific anti-obesity discrimination law, although some major cities, including San Francisco, have similar laws.