Size Matters

Obesity May Be Classed a Disability

Overweight employees could weigh heavily on a company's bottom line if they sue under disability law.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The European Court of Justice is expected to rule on whether obesity can be classed as a disability. If that is the case, and considering rising obesity rates across Europe, companies will have to accommodate obese employees or face court.

  • Facts


    • In Germany, obesity is not currently recognized as a disability.
    • In the US, a federal district court ruled in April that obesity may be a disability in its own right.
    • In many systems of European labor law, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which prevents a worker in carrying out his job properly.
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Labor-law experts are awaiting a verdict from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg on the test case of a Danish man who weighs 160 kilos, or 352 pounds. He claims he was fired for being overweight. The case, initially tried in a Danish court, was passed on to the ECJ to decide if obesity should be legally considered a disability under European employment law.

The advocate general concluded in his argument that very severe obesity should be considered a disability. While the advocate general’s role is advisory, it impacts the court’s decision, which is binding across E.U. member countries. The case is attracting a lot of attention in Germany.

“Should the court go along with this, it will have consequences here too,” said Cornelia Marquardt, manager of the labor-law practice Norton Rose Fulbright in Munich. “Up to now, German courts have only categorized being abnormally overweight as a handicap if it resulted in subsequent illnesses, like diabetes.”

By the advocate general’s reasoning, anyone with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 and over is disabled. Should this be adopted in Germany, then applicants who are refused a job solely because of their BMI could claim damages.

“It is possible that companies will have to offer particularly corpulent employees assistance to lose weight in the future – just like they have to support alcoholics with withdrawal therapy today,” said Ms. Marquardt.

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