European court rules that obesity can constitute a disability

The European Court of Justice (the ECJ) has ruled in the case of Kaltoft v Municipality of Billund (Case C-354/13) that obesity can constitute a disability within the meaning of the Employment Equality Directive.

However, the ECJ went on to qualify its ruling by stating that in order to be classed as ‘disabled’ the obese person must prove that his or her obesity entails “a limitation resulting in a particular long-term physical, mental or psychological impairment which may hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life, on an equal basis with other workers”. This would occur, for example, if the obese person suffers with reduced mobility or if the obesity causes a related medical condition.

Employers should note that the cause of the obesity is irrelevant; it does not matter if the obesity is caused by gluttony or laziness. Instead the focus must be on whether the obesity hinders full and effective participation in working life.

The Employment Equality Directive has the objective 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 contrary to the Directive if its application was dependent on the origin of the disability.

Now British employers will be expected to find ways to ensure that obese workers are not placed at a disadvantage, or treated any less favourably than slimmer colleagues. This will include making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help and support the worker within the work place such as providing larger chairs and desks, parking spaces closer to the front door of the employer’s premises and reducing duties that require a higher level of mobility.

The ECJ’s ruling has caused heated debates already with Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, stating that classifying obesity as a disability “insults those who are truly disabled”. Whereas others are welcoming the ruling saying that it is about time that “obesity is being seriously recognised”.

Unfortunately the ECJ declined to define what level of Body Mass Index would be required to class a person as disabled. Instead, decisions will need to be made on a case by case basis. This will create a lot of confusion and uncertainty for employers and is likely to result in an increase in litigation on the subject.

Contact our Employment team for further information.

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