The highest court in the European Union, the European Union Court of Justice in Luxembourg, ruled that employees are able to sue employers for discrimination over firings if their weight limits or hinders their ability to work.
The court found that overweight workers who cannot perform their job up to the standards required may be able to claim disability. The court's decision clarifies that while obesity itself is not a disability, the effects of it can be. Workers who suffer physical problems due to their size will now be protected under EU law.
The concept of disability "must be understood as referring not
only to the impossibility of exercising a professional activity,
but also to a hindrance to the exercise of such an activity,"
the court said.
This decision was triggered by a case in which Karsten Kaltoft sued the town of Billund, Denmark, after being dismissed from his post in 2010. Kaltoft weighed 353 pounds and a body mass index of 54, which classified him as obese. His public-sector employer denies that this was why he lost his job.
Kaltoft sued in a Danish court and asked the EU tribunal to rule on whether obesity could be included as a reason for unlawful discrimination by employers. The Danish court will have to decide on this case according to the EU's recent decision.
According to the World Health Organization, obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese. Specifically, as many as 30 percent of adults in Europe are obese.
Alexandra Mizzi, an employment and discrimination specialist at the law firm of Howard Kennedy LLP, stated, "[i]n an image-obsessed culture, obese people are particularly vulnerable to bullying and unfair treatment at work. This decision could leave employers liable for harassment of such staff by co-workers."
Case: C-354/13, FOA, acting on behalf of Karsten Kaltoft v. Billund Kommune.