Cut the Fat: Can You Reject Obese Applicants?

Obese Applicants

In the past decade, two parts of our lives have grown: American’s’ waistlines and the desire for employers to reduce their employee-related health care costs.  Consequently, those two trends force many employers to consider a legally risky thought. Can they refuse to hire over-weight people?

The debate typically hinges on the question of whether or not obesity is a protected “disability” under the ADA.  As a result, simply being obese doesn’t typically entitle an employee to ADA protection.  However, the ADA does protect people who are morbidly obese.

Successful Claims

Overweight employees have brought successful ADA claims under the following arguments:

  • The employee has a related health condition. Weight-related conditions include such diseases as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. These diseases usually “substantially limit” the employee enough to grant ADA protection.  Furthermore, the degree or cause of the obesity does not matter in these cases.
  • The employer bases actions on stereotypes and assumptions.  Due to you perceiving employees or applicants as disabled, they may earn ADA protection.  An example of this is the truck driver who recently won $109,000 in damages.  His employer suspended him without pay based on the assumption that his obesity made him unfit to drive a truck.  (McDuffy v. Interstate Distributor)
  • Men and women are treated differently according to weight standards. A Yale study found that overweight women face discrimination twice as often as overweight men.  Hence, treating overweight women differently, could end in a sex-bias lawsuit.

The Skinny

First of all, your best legally safe action is to ignore an applicant’s weight.  Most noteworthy, the only exception to that rule would be if extra weight prevents the employee from performing essential job functions. Furthermore, the problem could be tied to a medical condition, therefore triggering ADA protection.