Human Resources News & Insights

First ADA suit since AMA’s obesity policy: Is this the start of something big?

Bet you saw this coming: On the heels of the American Medical Association (AMA) announcing its position that obesity qualifies as a disease, an employee in Missouri has filed suit accusing his employer of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing him because of his weight.  

According to documents filed with a federal district court, Joseph Whittaker was fired by America’s Car-Mart because he “had severe obesity, which is an impairment within the meaning of the ADA, and which (his employer) regarded as … an impairment.”

The employer claimed that Whittaker’s obesity made it difficult for him to walk — an essential function of his job as general manager of a car dealership. But Whittaker, according to his court filing, was “able to perform the essential functions of his position … with or without accommodation.”

Whittaker’s petition asks for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as payment for emotional and mental anguish.

The case is Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Inc. (link courtesy of law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips).

AMA stance not mentioned

Whittaker’s suit doesn’t specifically mention the AMA’s decision to pass last June’s resolution defining obesity as a disease. But it’s the first such case to be filed in federal court since the medical association’s action.

The organization said the AMA “adopted a policy that recognizes obesity as a disease requiring a range of medical interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention” at its annual meeting in Chicago.

“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D., said in a statement. “The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity.”

What’s it mean? Here’s Andrew Pollack, writing in the New York Times:

To some extent, the question of whether obesity is a disease or not is a semantic one, since there is not even a universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes a disease. And the AMA’s decision has no legal authority.

Still, some doctors and obesity advocates said that having the nation’s largest physician group make the declaration would focus more attention on obesity. And it could help improve reimbursement for obesity drugs, surgery and counseling.

The Times story went on to summarize the arguments for and against calling obesity a disease:

One reason in favor, it said, was that it would reduce the stigma of obesity that stems from the widespread perception that it’s simply the result of eating too much or exercising too little. Some doctors say that people don’t have full control over their weight.

Supporters of the disease classification also say it fits some medical criteria of a disease, such as impairing body function.

Those arguing against it say that there are no specific symptoms associated with it and that it’s more a risk factor for other conditions than a disease in its own right.

They also say that “medicalizing” obesity by declaring it a disease would define one-third of Americans as being ill and could lead to more reliance on costly drugs and surgery rather than lifestyle changes. Some people might be overtreated because their “body mass index” was above a line designating them as having a disease, even though they were healthy.

Just the beginning?

Could this be the first of an avalanche of cases alleging discrimination based on obesity? Many experts fear so.

With the obesity rate in this country running at 30% or higher, there are going to be a lot of employees who’ll have a new way to sue their company, if the AMA policy carries as much weight as many observers think it will.

Other employment arenas where the disease designation might come into play: wellness programs and FMLA.

We’ll keep you posted.




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