December 18, 2014

European court says “obesity could be a disability”

The European Court of Justice was asked to consider the case of a Danish childminder, Karsten Kaltoft, who claims that he was sacked for being too fat.

Following his dismissal four years ago, he brought a discrimination case against his former employer, Billund local authority.

Examining the case, judges in Luxembourg concluded that, of itself, obesity could not be classified as a disability. However, a person suffering a long-term impairment, which resulted from being severely overweight, could be protected by disability laws if the person’s condition hinders their ability to take part fully in everyday professional life in the same way as others who are not obese.

The Courts in Denmark will now have to assess Mr Kaltoft, who is around 25st and has a body mass index of 54, to see if his case meets these criteria, since the case has been remitted back to the Danish courts to assess the case on the basis of the ECJ judgment.

There are some interesting facts about this case, not least of them that Mr Kaltoft had started work at the nursery in 1996 obese, remained obese throughout his employment (despite unsuccessful attempts to lose weight) – and was actually dismissed because less children were using the nursery, meaning that the local authority which ran the nursery needed to reduce the number of child minders. So Mr Kaltoft was actually redundant – but of course argued that his selection was because of obesity.

The ECJ held that the origins of the condition amounting to a disability are irrelevant; the issue is whether the condition (physical, mental or psychological) impairs a person’s ability to fully and effectively participate in working life to the same extent as others.

The ramifications of the judgement are already being examined by employment lawyers, since the court’s rulings are binding in all EU member states.

Jane Deville Almond, the chairwoman of the British Obesity Society, told the BBC she had concerns about today’s developments.

“I think the downside would be that if employers suddenly have to start ensuring that they've got wider seats, larger tables, more parking spaces for people who are obese, I think then we're just making the situation worse.

“[It is] implying that people have no control over the condition, rather than something that can be greatly improved by changing behaviour.”

The World Health Organisation says that anyone with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more is classed as obese. In the UK, around one in four people fall into this category.

For more information or advice on discrimination cases please contact Richard Woodman, Gemma Ospedale or Caroline Doran.

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