Defining Obesity Under the Law

After the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been in effect for a while, it was amended in 2008, but still some members of Congress believed that various judicial decisions had “improperly narrowed the broad scope of protection” because of incidents like this:

[T]he first federal circuit court to address this issue, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals […] rejected the plaintiff employee’s argument that his obesity constituted a disability, and affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer.

This was in line with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s opinion that physical traits are not disabilities unless they are outside the normal range, and result from a physiological disorder. That applied to severe obesity, too, and in 2016 the Eighth Circuit court confirmed it.

On the other hand, according to a website for Human Resources professionals…

[…] in several instances, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has successfully obtained settlements on behalf of employees alleging that the discrimination they faced due to their obesity violated the ADA.

The 2008 ADA amendments, rather than clarifying matters, had seemed to inspire even more confusion about whether obesity, in and of itself, should qualify as a disability. Such a determination has far-reaching consequences, including a fear that people living on taxpayers’ bounty would just sit around gaining even more weight. In 2012 the American Medical Association said that obesity constitutes a disease, so that had some influence.

Then, along came the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, to say that under the ADA, severe obesity can be a disability even if there is no evidence of an underlying physiological condition. A National Law Review article by Melissa Legault says,

[W]hether obesity qualifies as a disability under the ADA is largely dependent on jurisdictional and situational factors, but most jurisdictions that have considered the issue have held that obesity alone, without an underlying physiological disorder, does not constitute a protected physical impairment.

Soon, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was heard from. It agreed with the Second, Sixth and Eighths circuits. Unless caused by an underlying condition, extreme obesity is not a physical impairment. Michael D. Malone elaborated on the complications:

However, the First Circuit has reached the opposite conclusion, holding, based on expert testimony presented at trial, that morbid obesity, independent of an underlying physiological disease or disorder, can be a physical impairment under the ADA, and taking the position that a jury should decide the issue.

At any rate, all of that was about workplace discrimination and had very little to do with young people, especially in their roles as students. But we will get back to that.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is Obesity a Disability Under the ADA?,”, 04/19/16
Source: “Eighth Circuit: Obesity Itself Not a Disability,” 04/14/16
Source: “Does Obesity Qualify as a Disability Under the ADA? — It Depends on Who You Ask (US),”, 04/11/19
Source: “Obesity Alone Is Not a Disability Under the ADA,”, 09/10/19
Image by Alan Levine/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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