Can California employers fire someone because they are obese? Is obesity considered a disability that is protected under the law? These are important questions for Ketryn Cornell. Cornell, a former employee of the Berkeley Tennis Club, recently filed a disability discrimination and wrongful termination against her former employer after she was fired because of her weight. In the lawsuit, she alleged that her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her disability and based their decision to terminate her on her weight. While her arguments fell on deaf ears at the trial court level, the California Court of Appeals was more open to hearing Cornell’s argument. After reviewing her appeal, the court decided that obesity could potentially be classified as a disability. As a result, any attempts to fire an employee over that disability would be unlawful.
California law prohibits employers from treating employees unfavorably because they have a disability. Instead, employers are required to treat and/or evaluate the employee/applicant as they would any other person. Employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodation(s) to help that employee do her job.
When does a person have a disability that is protected under the law? California defines the term “disability” broadly, allowing it to cover a wide range of conditions. There are two primary ways a disability can be classified: as a mental disability or a physical disability.
Mental Disability: A mental disability is present when a person has a “mental or psychological disorder or condition that limits a major life activity.” Examples of a mental disability include chronic depression, bipolar disorder, and learning difficulties.
Physical Disability: A physical disability is present when a person has “any anatomical loss, cosmetic disfigurement, physiological disease, disorder or condition” that:
- Affects a major body system, and
- Limits a major life activity.
Examples of physical disabilities include pregnancy, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, hearing loss, and paralysis.
Disabilities are specifically defined to exclude certain types of conditions. The following conditions are not considered disabilities under California’s anti-discrimination laws:
- Sexual behavior disorders,
- Compulsive gambling,
- Pyromania, and
- Impairment from illegal drug use.
Obesity as a Disability
How does obesity fit into California’s definition of a disability? It is important to note that the California Court of Appeals did not say that all cases of obesity should be classified as a disability. Instead, they explained that obesity can have a “physiological cause.” Under the law, a disability exists if a person has:
- A “physiological disease, disorder, or condition;”
- That affects a major bodily system; and
- Limits a major life activity.
So, if obesity has a physiological cause, affects a major bodily system, and limits a major life activity it can be described as a disability. In these situations, employers must treat that employee as they would anyone else. Firing an employee because of his/her weight could be considered unlawful discrimination and wrongful termination.
Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. These accommodations are intended to help the employee do the essential functions of his/her job without creating an undue hardship on the employer. Examples of reasonable accommodations may include:
- Giving an employee more frequent breaks;
- Allowing an employee to sit while completing their work;
- Permitting an employee to bring a service dog or aide to work;
- Ensuring that employees have equal access to bathrooms, break rooms, and exits;
- Altering work schedules;
- Altering job duties assigned to the employee;
- Relocating the employee’s work area; and
- Allowing an employee to take leave for medical purposes.
Fighting Disability Discrimination in California
Have you been the victim of workplace discrimination or wrongful termination because of your weight? If so, you may be entitled to compensation. Call the disability discrimination attorneys at the Briski Law Firm for more information. We will review your case, explain your rights as an employee in California, and answer your questions.