Employment Lawsuit in New Jersey Claims Disability Discrimination Based on Obesity

By Tomwsulcer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsA New Jersey federal lawsuit, Clem v. Case Pork Roll Co., No. 3:15-cv-06809, complaint (D.N.J., Sep. 11, 2015), alleges unlawful discrimination on the basis of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-1 et seq. The case raises two important points regarding disability discrimination. First, the alleged disability in question is obesity and certain related conditions. No court has ever found obesity, in and of itself, to be a disability covered by the ADA, but recent amendments to that law, as well as court decisions and other developments, raise the possibility that conditions related to obesity could qualify. Additionally, the plaintiff’s husband, not the plaintiff, is the one with the alleged disability, but the ADA allows family members to assert claims in certain circumstances.

The plaintiff’s statement of the case includes a number of unpleasant physical details related to her husband’s condition. She states that her husband worked as the comptroller for the defendant, a pork product manufacturing and distribution company. In 2008, the defendant hired her as a part-time administrative assistant for her husband.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff’s husband, who weighed about 420 pounds at the time, underwent gastric bypass surgery in October 2010. This resulted in multiple side effects, including “extreme gas and uncontrollable diarrhea.” Clem, complaint at 3. The symptoms grew worse, the plaintiff claims, in 2013, resulting in numerous complaints from the company’s president to her and her husband. Both the president and the owner allegedly began harassing the plaintiff about her husband’s condition. The company terminated the plaintiff’s husband at the end of February 2014, and the plaintiff resigned the same day.

The plaintiff’s complaint alleges discrimination and hostile work environment because of her husband’s medical condition, in violation of both the ADA and the NJLAD. Discrimination claims under the ADA are not limited to disabled people themselves. The law also addresses discrimination against a person based on a relationship or association with a disabled person. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4). The question of whether the plaintiff’s husband’s obesity and the effects of the surgery are covered by the ADA may be more complicated.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADA) expanded the definition of “disability.” In addition to “physical or mental impairment[s]” that significantly reduce a person’s ability to perform “one or more major life activities,” the ADA now also covers “being regarded as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 12102(1)(A), (C). If an individual’s obesity substantially hinders them, or if an employer regards a person as being substantially hindered, it could qualify as a disability under the ADA. The decision by the American Medical Association in 2013 to classify obesity as a disease may lend additional support for this view.

Courts are also beginning to view obesity-related conditions as protected disabilities. In December 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that obesity itself is not a disability under the law, but related conditions may be if they “hinder the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers” on a long-term basis. Kaltoft v Municipality of Billund, Case C-354/13, judgment at 59 (CJEU, Dec. 18, 2014). Closer to home, a U.S. district court issued a very similar holding in Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, No. 1:13-cv-00108, mem. order (E.D. Mo., Apr. 24, 2014).

If you need to speak to an disability discrimination attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group today through our website, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

What Duty Does an Employer Have to Protect Employees from Infectious Diseases? The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 24, 2014

Paramus Party Company Settles Sexual Harassment Case Filed on Behalf of Terminated Teen Worker, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, August 20, 2013

American Medical Association’s Decision to Label Obesity a Disease May Affect Disability Claims in in New York and Nationwide, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, July 16, 2013

Photo credit: By Tomwsulcer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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