Is Obesity a “Disability” Under the Anti-Discrimination Laws?

Federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination based on, among other factors, “disability.” That term is, in turn, defined in the statutes themselves. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C.A. § 12101 et seq., defines a “disability” as: “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(1). The New York City Human Rights Law defines “disability” more broadly as “any physical, medical, mental or psychological impairment, or a history or record of such impairment.”  N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-102(16).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity affected about 93.3 million U.S. adults in 2015-2016, and obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Clearly, obesity is a serious health concern in this country.

Might obesity be considered a “disability” under the anti-discrimination laws? The answer is not clear.

In Spiegel v. Schulmann, 604 F.3d 72, 83 (2d Cir. 2010), the Second Circuit noted:

Neither the New York Court of Appeals nor any intermediate New York appellate court has addressed the question whether obesity alone constitutes a disability for the purposes of the NYCHRL. The New York courts have recently noted that, under the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, Local Law No. 85 of the City of New York, “analysis [of NYCHRL provisions] must be targeted to understanding and fulfilling what the statute characterizes as the City HRL’s ‘uniquely broad and remedial’ purposes, which go beyond those of counterpart State or federal civil rights laws.” Williams v. N.Y. City Housing Auth., 61 A.D.3d 62, 66, 872 N.Y.S.2d 27 (N.Y.App.Div.2009), leave to appeal denied by 13 N.Y.3d 702, 885 N.Y.S.2d 716, 914 N.E.2d 365 (2009). “In short, the text and legislative history represent a desire that the City HRL ‘meld the broadest vision of social justice with the strongest law enforcement deterrent.’ ” Id. at 68, 872 N.Y.S.2d 27 (quoting Craig Gurian, A Return to Eyes on the Prize: Litigating Under the Restored New York City Human Rights Law, 33 Fordham Urb. L.J. 255, 262 (2008)). These general observations regarding NYCHRL provisions, however, have not been considered by these courts in the context of a claim related to obesity.

In Hazeldine v. Beverage Media, Ltd., 954 F.Supp. 697, 703 (S.D.N.Y.,1997), the Southern District of New York held – notably, under the pre-2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act – “that plaintiff has not presented facts sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that her obesity so significantly limits a major life activity” and noted the absence of “evidence that plaintiff’s obesity limits her ability to see, hear, speak, breathe, learn, work, sit, stand, reach, care for herself, perform manual tasks, drive a car, or commute to work in any way.”

Thus, under certain circumstances, obesity – and its myriad health issues – may (but does not necessarily) qualify as a “disability” under the anti-discrimination laws.