The plaintiff brought suit against the
Big Ten under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that he
was discharged "due to his perceived disability of obesity."
But when the smoke cleared, the Big Ten
had won the case.
Lawsuits over weight include everything
from claims that McDonald's "made me obese" to highly publicized
battles against airlines who charge overweight customers for two
seats. Weight discrimination in the workplace is also a source of
contention, but it is unusual for plaintiffs to win discrimination
suits based on obesity. That's because federal employment
discrimination laws do not include weight as a protected class, said
Shannon Moritz, director of legal writing with the University of
Illinois College of Law.
In many cases, the courts simply do not
view obesity as a disability, she noted. What's more, some jobs are
allowed to include weight and height requirements where health and
safety issues arise -- positions such as police officers and
But even in jobs where weight standards
are not critical, there is considerable evidence that obese people
face larger hurdles than their slimmer counterparts.
As Moritz put it, "There are no areas
of employment where people are free from discrimination on the basis
of obesity -- everything from the initial hiring to whether they
will be promoted or how their employees treat them in the
As evidence, the American Obesity
Association cites a research review by Mark Roehling, a professor in
the Department of Management in Western Michigan University.
Roehling reviewed 29 research studies of employment discrimination
and concluded, "Overall, the evidence of consistent, significant
discrimination against overweight employees is sobering."
For example, two studies in this review
found that mildly obese white women received 5.9 percent lower wages
than standard-weight women, while morbidly obese white women
received wages that were 24.1 percent lower.
"Obesity is the last bastion of
socially acceptable discrimination," said Richard L. Atkinson,
president of the American Obesity Association. "If you have a
position of authority and you make a disparaging remark about
African-Americans or Hispanics, you will probably lose your
position. But people slam obese people all of the time and nobody
thinks a thing of it."
[to top of second column
in this article]
However, being discriminated against is
one thing. Proving it in court is another.
According to Moritz, you first would
have to prove that your obesity is a disability, which is not simple
to do. Second, you would have to prove that you're qualified for the
job; and third, you would have to show that you were not given the
job specifically because of your disability.
However, cases have been won, most
notably in the airline industry, which have historically attracted
litigation over weight standards. The litigation goes back to the
1960s, when all airline attendants were women and they were required
to meet stringent appearance requirements.
The airlines' argument in those days,
Moritz said, was that they needed women to fill those roles because
their service goes beyond just getting people from Point A to Point
B; the male business travelers wanted an atmosphere where women made
them feel more comfortable.
The female-only standard in airlines is
long gone, but battles still rage over weight standards for flight
attendants. In a recent case, for example, female flight attendants
brought a class-action suit, claiming that the male weight standards
allowed for large-bodied frames but the more stringent standards for
females required women to have medium body frames or smaller.
The flight attendants were successful
through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to Moritz, many legal
scholars believe that the most effective legal means to combat
weight discrimination in employment is by amending state statutes.
At this time, however, Michigan is the only state that specifically
prohibits weight discrimination in employment -- although some state
and local statutes deal with "appearance discrimination" in general.
average person can visibly see that someone is different, there is
always more intense discrimination," Atkinson pointed out. "So I
think that unfortunately we have not progressed as a worldwide
civilization very far. We're still beating up on people who are
different than us."
[University of Illinois