Obesity as Disability? Workers' Comp Effects

Employers are being asked to shoulder not only the responsibilities of a work injury but also of issues with little tie to the work environment.

A federal district court ruled in April 2014 that obesity itself may be a disability, amounting to the first shot in a war of lawsuits on grounds of obesity discrimination and opening up additional liability for workers' compensation claims across the country.

The case is Joseph Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Although the case is pending in Missouri, the implications apply nationwide because the court is applying provisions of the ubiquitous Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The plaintiff claims the company, a car dealership chain, fired him from his job as a general manager after seven years of employment even though he was able to perform all essential functions of his job, with or without accommodations. He alleges that “severe obesity … is a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA,” and that the company regarded him as being substantially limited in the major life activity of walking.

Attorneys for the company had moved to dismiss the case, arguing that obesity was not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and citing language from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that, “except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment.”

The judge rejected the company’s position, noting: “Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a claim that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.”

The plaintiff’s argument could be seen as a legal extension of the medical policy change made by the American Medical Association in June 2013, when the AMA adopted a policy that recognizes obesity as a disease.

Application to workers' compensation

One of the main issues in many workers' compensation claims is whether the employee is able to return to work in the open labor market. If the employee can’t, there is a focus on whether the inability to return to work was caused by the work accident alone, or is caused by pre-existing conditions, or a combination of the pre-existing disabilities and the work-related injuries. Claims are then adjudicated based on the primary cause of the inability to return to work.

Although most states have statutes that limit an award for permanent total disability benefits to those situations where the work injury alone is the cause, the practice is must different. For example, if a claimant has pre-existing disabilities and is then injured at work and cannot return to the workforce, judges are often reluctant to award minimal benefits, knowing that the claimant cannot ever return to work. It is much easier for the judge to find that the work injury alone is the primary cause and to award permanent total disability benefits even if the work injuries are only part of the equation.

Once obesity is accepted as a valid disability, injured workers could more easily argue that their obesity is a permanent condition that impedes their ability to return to work, as opposed to a temporary life-choice that can be reversed.

Injured workers could more easily qualify for Social Security disability benefits and for permanent total disability benefits, as the work injury is usually the last event in a chain of events (including, now, a history of obesity).

Once again, employers are being asked to shoulder not only the responsibilities of a work injury but also the responsibility of dealing with issues that have little, if any, relationship to the work environment.

After the ADA became law in 1993, I remember hearing the Americans with Disabilities Act referred to as “The Lawyers Full Employment Act.” Unfortunately, that moniker is now coming closer to reality.

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