Obesity Discrimination Ruling

Posted in : HR Updates on 11 February 2015
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
Issues covered:

In a long-awaited ruling, the Court of Justice (CJEU) ruled in December last year, that obesity can constitute a "disability" but only if it hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.

Case C-354/13 came to the CJEU from Denmark where courts had heard claims from Karsten Kaltoft that his dismissal as a childminder was discriminatory because of his weight.

He had worked for the Municipality of Billund for 15 years and, throughout his employment, never weighed less than 160kg which meant, with a BMI (body mass index) of 54, that he was classified as obese.

The municipality denies that obesity is among the reasons for Mr Kaltoft’s dismissal.

Assessing the claims, a Danish court asked the CJEU to specify whether EU law itself prohibits discrimination on grounds of obesity. It also asked whether obesity can constitute a disability and therefore falls within the scope of the Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC).

The EU Court has replied to the effect that, in the area of employment and occupation, EU law does not lay down a general principle of non-discrimination on grounds of obesity as such.

However, if, under given circumstances, the obesity of the worker entails a limitation which results in particular from physical, mental or psychological impairments which may hinder the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, and the limitation is a long-term one, such obesity can fall within the concept of "disability" within the meaning of the directive.

"Such would be the case, in particular," the Court said, "if the obesity of the worker hindered that participation on account of reduced mobility or the onset of medical conditions preventing that person from carrying out work or causing discomfort when exercising professional activity."

It is now for the Danish court to decide the original case on the basis of this ruling. As with all CJEU judgements, it applies in all Member States where it must now be taken into account when deciding any future similar cases.

What does this mean in practice?

  • Does this mean that anyone who is obese is considered disabled? No, only where the impact of obesity has an effect on normal day to day activities.
  • Will this case be followed in Northern Ireland? Yes, because it is an EU decision — but how it is interpreted here may be open to debate.
  • Was obesity covered in Northern Ireland already? Arguably yes, if it were considered a long-term physical impairment.
  • What are an employer’s obligations? For pre-employment there should be no discrimination on the basis of a person’s size. There is the possibility that some cases will arise, but we expect those to be few and far between.
  • In employment there may be requests/reasonable adjustments to consider, eg specialist equipment, allocated parking, bigger portions from the canteen, super-sized lunch breaks. Where the requirement is reasonable we would expect that businesses have dealt with this anyway, particularly if there is a health and safety requirement, such as a chair that supported a worker’s weight.
  • In the termination of employment, size should not be used unless reasonable; however, it may be relevant if, for example, the worker cannot undertake their duties effectively (for example, a fire-fighter who cannot climb a ladder or carry a weight).
This article is correct at 14/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

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