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Should obesity be a protected characteristic?

April 2nd, 2013  |  Lorene Park

In a July 10, 2012 blog, I discussed how recent amendments to the ADA could be construed to bring obesity within the broadened definition of disability. In light of one recent case, I am left to wonder if obesity (or perhaps “morbid obesity”) shouldn’t be a protected category in its own right. In Bill v City of North Lauderdale, a federal district court in Florida granted an employer’s motion to dismiss an obese city employee’s complaint that detailed “needlessly cruel” behavior by coworkers (Case No. 12-61342-CIV, March 25, 2013). He worked in the public works department for more than seven years and, upon his return from medical leave, discovered that a picture of a small pig was posted above the lunchroom clock with the words “baby found in the rectum of a fat Irish ass.” This was merely one in a long string of derogatory pictures and actions, including pictures of overweight individuals and animals representing the women the employee dated as well as a sticky note pasted on his back which stated “I’m a Fat F*ck.”

In granting the employer’s motion, the court explained that obesity is not a protected category under Title VII. Maybe it should be. To be sure, as federal courts frequently aver, “Title VII is not a general civility code.” However, the abuse endured by this employee seemed much more than the “ordinary tribulations of the workplace.”