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21st Jan 2019

Obesity could qualify as disability, says EU court

  • The ruling could have far-reaching implications for employers (Photo: Steve Baker)

Obesity may be considered a disability if it affects how a person does their job and so could fall under EU rules banning discrimination in the workplace, the EU's top court said Thursday (17 July) in an opinion set to be closely studied by employers.

"Morbid obesity may come within the meaning of ‘disability’ if it is of such a degree as to hinder full participation in professional life on an equal footing with other employees,” said advocate general Niilo Jaaskinen.

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The case arrived at the European Court of Justice after Karsten Kaltoft, a child-minder Denmark, claimed he unfairly lost his job because of his weight.

Kaltoft had been working for a local municipality for 15 years looking after children in his own home when his contract was not renewed in 2010.

He said this was due to his size – something denied by his employers – as he is officially classified as obese, and claimed damages for discrimination.

The Danish court asked its EU counterpart to decide whether obesity could be included as a reason for unlawful discrimination by employers.

Jaaskinen said "there is no general, stand-alone prohibition on discrimination on grounds of obesity in EU law."

But he noted that obesity could fall under the scope of the EU employment law that bans discrimination on the grounds of disability in the workplace.

The opinion was clear that only “extreme, severe, or morbid obesity” could eventually be classified as a disability.

Richie Alder, employment partner at law firm Trowers & Hamlins in the UK, said the ruling appeared to send a "contradictory messsage" employers.

He noted that while obesity may not automatically lead to employees having to make "reasonable adjustments" to the workplace to accommodate them, a person with morbid or severe obesity could be classifed as having a disability so "reasonable adjustments may need to be made".

The EU court still has to give a final ruling on the matter, though it follows the Advocate General’s opinion in the majority of cases.

The final decision on Kaltoft’s case will be taken by the court in Denmark.

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