Obesity can constitute a disability, says EU court
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that obesity can constitute a disability in certain circumstances if it impairs a person’s ability to work.
The ruling will have major implications for employers in the UK who may have to make adjustments for overweight employees or run the risk of discrimination claims.
The court made it clear that being overweight was not in itself a disability within the meaning of the Employment Equality Directive, but could be considered so if it created an impairment which prevented a person being able to work on an equal footing with other employees.
The ruling stated: “The concept of ‘disability’ within the meaning of the directive must be understood as referring to a limitation which results in particular from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments which may hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.
“While no general principle of EU law prohibits, in itself, discrimination on grounds of obesity, that condition falls within the concept of ‘disability’ where, under particular conditions, it hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.”
The ruling makes it clear that the cause of the obesity is irrelevant in terms of a person’s legal rights, even if it is as a result of the person’s gluttony and lifestyle.
The ruling says: “The directive has the object of implementing equal treatment and aims in particular to enable a person with a disability to have access to or participate in employment. In addition, it would run counter to the aim of the directive if its application was dependent on the origin of the disability.”
The case that prompted the ruling involved a Danish child minder, Karsten Kaltoft, who was dismissed for being so overweight that he needed help to tie a child’s shoelaces.
The court didn’t define the level of Body Mass Index that would be required to class an employee as obese. It said such decisions should be made on a case by case basis.
Employers may wish to re-assess their employment policies to take account of the ruling.
Please contact Jackie Cuneen if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of employment law.