Obesity, Alone, Is Not A Disability

The question of whether or not obesity is considered a disability has been partially answered. On April 4, 2019, Judge Haas delivered the opinion of the New Jersey Appellate Division in the case of Dickson v. Community Bus Lines, Inc. d/b/a Coach USA, A-3857-17T3 (App. Div. Apr. 4, 2019),—which effectively limited how and when obesity can form the basis of a perceived protected disability. Unequivocally, Judge Haas explained that obesity alone may not constitute the basis for a person to assert that he or she has a disability protected by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Judge Haas wrote that “obesity alone is not protected under the LAD as a disability unless it has an underlying medical cause, a condition that plaintiff failed to meet in the present case.” Because the plaintiff did not establish that defendants viewed him as suffering from any condition other than obesity, he was denied LAD protection. If, instead, the plaintiff had shown that his obesity was a disability caused by a bodily injury, birth defect, or illness, the plaintiff may have been afforded LAD protection.

Still, the plaintiff would have needed to show that his coworkers or supervisors were treating him pervasively poorly because of his conditions. The LAD protects employees from discrimination for both disabilities and perceived disabilities—here, for example, the plaintiff was asserting that he was being treated poorly because others saw his body size, assumed that it made him less qualified for the job, and outwardly spoke or acted on this perception.

Importantly, Judge Haas also reemphasized what a proper “hostile work environment” case entails: a plaintiff must show "(1) that [he or she] is in a protected class; (2) that [he or she] was subjected to conduct that would not have occurred but for that protected status; and (3) that it was severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment." Being a member of a protected class is, in fact, a prerequisite necessary to bring a hostile environment claim. Currently, while obesity alone is not a condition which constitutes a protected class, many other conditions and characteristics are. For instance, a disability based on a health condition (such as paraplegia, cancer, or Crohn’s Disease) can form the basis of a protected class. Additionally, New Jersey provides protections for certain characteristics (such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation), which can form the basis of a protective class. But the Appellate Division has drawn the line that today, obesity alone will not provide grounds for LAD protection.

If you think that you are being discriminated against for a perceived or actual disability, you should contact an employment attorney.