(Bloomberg) — The European Union’s highest court extended discrimination laws to obesity, saying employees in limited situations may be able to sue over firings if their weight hinders or limits them at work.
Workers who are so overweight that they can’t do their job in the same way as colleagues may be able to claim disability, the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled today. The court stopped short of grouping obesity with other physical infirmities.
The decision clarifies that while “obesity itself is not a disability, the effects of it can be,” said Paul Callaghan, head of employment at law firm Taylor Wessing LLP in London. “Workers who suffer from, for example, joint problems, depression or diabetes — specifically because of their size — will be protected” under EU law “and cannot be dismissed because of their weight.”
Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which says at least 2.8 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. People with a BMI (body mass index) of more than 25 are classified as overweight and a BMI of more than 30 is obese. As many as 30 percent of adults in Europe are obese, the WHO says.
The concept of disability “must be understood as referring not only to the impossibility of exercising a professional activity, but also to a hindrance to the exercise of such an activity,” the court said.
“In an image-obsessed culture, obese people are particularly vulnerable to bullying and unfair treatment at work,” Alexandra Mizzi, an employment and discrimination specialist at law firm Howard Kennedy LLP, said in a statement. “This decision could leave employers liable for harassment of such staff by co-workers.”
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Today’s case was triggered by Karsten Kaltoft, who sued the town of Billund, Denmark, after he was dismissed from his post in 2010. Kaltoft, whose weight was never less than 160 kilograms (353 pounds) at the time, had a high body mass index of 54, which classified him as obese. His public-sector employer denies that this was why he lost his job.
“It had been suggested that a BMI of 40 or above would put a worker in this category, but this case suggests there is not a hard and fast rule – the key test is the impact on the individual’s day-to-day activities,” said Mizzi.
Kaltoft first took his case to a Danish court, which asked the EU tribunal to rule on whether obesity could be included as a reason for unlawful discrimination by employers. The Danish court will have to decide on his case in line with today’s ruling.
The ruling puts the onus on employers to minimize risks of discrimination claims to provide “appropriate support to staff with obesity issues,” said Vanessa Di Cuffa, an employment lawyer at Shakespeares in the U.K.