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28 March 2013

Obese employee held to be ‘disabled’

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) recently held that an obese employee suffering from multiple symptoms was ‘disabled’ and therefore entitled to pursue his claim for disability discrimination. 

The employee in this case suffered from numerous conditions (including asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, knee problems, bowel problems, anxiety and depression), that were all compounded by his obesity.

He brought a disability discrimination claim against his employer, but an employment judge found that he was not ‘disabled’ for the purposes of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (the same definition now applies under the Equality Act 2010, which has replaced the DDA).

One of the primary reasons behind the decision was that an occupational health specialist could not identify any specific underlying “physical or organic cause” for the conditions, and that all the symptoms were made worse by the claimant’s emotional state.

The claimant appealed to the EAT.

Decision

The EAT has allowed the claimant’s appeal.  The employment judge had been wrong to focus on the fact that the medical evidence could not identify a physical or mental cause for the claimant’s conditions.

When considering whether an individual is disabled, a tribunal must concentrate on whether they have a physical or mental impairment.  The legislation does not require a judge to focus on the cause of an impairment; the fact that the claimant’s impairments may lack an apparent cause is an evidential issue rather than a legal one. The EAT noted that this is still the case even if the cause is one explicitly excluded from being a disability under the legislation (for example, alcoholism cannot be viewed as a disability but liver disease resulting from alcohol dependency could be).

In this case, the claimant’s condition was not disputed at all.  It was very clear that he had been substantially impaired by both physical and mental impairments for a long time, and according to the EAT this was the only view that could possibly be reached on the facts.

The EAT clarified that obesity itself was not a disability under the legislation, but it might make it more likely that an individual is disabled as it would have an impact on whether any condition causes a substantial impairment.

Comment

This case is a good reminder that it is important to focus on the actual impairment from which an individual is suffering, and the effects on the individual, rather than the cause of the impairment.   With health issues relating to obesity on the increase, this is something that employers should bear in mind when dealing with overweight employees.

A copy of the EAT decision is available here