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Does the ADA protect against obesity discrimination?

Is obesity considered a disability—deserving of the same employment protections as other mental and physical impairments under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? This is a question which was recently posed to a California court.

Ketryn Cornell was a high-achieving employee at the Berkeley Tennis Club for more than 15 years. She has been severely obese for all of her adult life. When the tennis club hired Rigoberto Headley as the new general manager in 2012, he allegedly began making derogatory comments about Cornell’s weight—both to Cornell and to other colleagues. Headley then reduced her hours and hired a petite woman to take over some of her job duties. He ultimately fired Cornell after accusing her of hiding an audio recorder in the board of directors’ meeting room—allegations which Cornell denies.

Cornell sued for wrongful termination and disability discrimination. The tennis club claimed that obesity does not meet the legal definition of “physical disability.”

In order to demonstrate a physical disability under the law, a plaintiff must show that they have a physiological impairment that has a major impact on their life. The law also provides protections for medical conditions. In a disability discrimination claim, an employee must show that they:

  • Suffered from a disability,
  • Faced discrimination due to the disability and
  • Were fully able to carry out all essential job duties (with or without accommodations).

The case was originally dismissed, but Cornell appealed the ruling. The Court of Appeals has now overturned the decision, holding that obesity may qualify as a physical disability.

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