Obesity and Disability

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The Problem

An issue which has been around for a while now is whether obesity can be classified as a disability. So can it?

The Principle

In Kaltoft v Municipality of Billund (Case C-354/13) the European Court of Justice has confirmed the Advocate General’s opinion (which we reported on before Christmas).  The ECJ held that there is no general principle of EU law which prohibits discrimination on the ground of obesity.  However, the ECJ went on to note that there are conditions under which obesity can amount to a disability.  For example, where obesity entails ‘a limitation resulting in particular from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers’. This would be the case, in particular, where the obesity results in reduced mobility, or the onset of related medical conditions.

Note that the ECJ stressed that the origins of obesity are irrelevant to the question of whether obesity is a disability.  The focus should be on whether it hinders full and effective participation in working life. This will be, ultimately, a question for national courts to determine.

The Practice

This case reminds employers of the need to be very specific in the questions it asks of medical experts when seeking a medical report.  When an employee is obese there will need to be a focus on questions around how, exactly, full and effective participation in professional life may be impaired by the individual’s medical condition.  If an employee’s obesity is likely to result in them being disabled then the duty to consider and make reasonable adjustments will also kick in.

For more information, help or advice please contact Tim Davies on 0191 211 7927.