The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that obesity may now be included as a disability within equality at work legislation in the European Union (EU). Thursday morning’s verdict was the result of a case lodged with the court earlier this year by former child-minder Karsten Kaltoft.
The Danish man who weighs around 350 pounds, brought his case to the ECJ earlier this year, against his former employer the local authority in Billund. Kaltoft’s 15-year employment with Billund came to an end four years ago when he was fired for what he claims was being overweight.
Although the local Danish authority said Kaltoft was let go due a reduction in the numbers of children, the sacking occurred amid claims that the child-minder was unable to tie-up children’s shoelaces and had sought the help of a colleague. Kaltoft told the BBC earlier this year, that the claims about his inability to tie laces were untrue. He also said he thought firing a person for being fat was wrong if they were doing their job properly.
While the court judged that the condition of obesity is not considered a disability, a fact of resulting long-term impairment could provide for the person to be protected by legislation. In considering their decision, the EU judges determined that obesity may now be included as a disability if a person’s “full and effective participation” in their work was effected as a consequence of their weight.
The court said that for the purposes of the legislation, disability can be established if an obese person has “long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments” which make it difficult for them to be fully and effectively involved with their co-workers “on an equal basis.” The ruling also stipulates that the cause of a person’s obesity has no bearing on the existence of the condition.
Although the new ruling is applicable to all E.U. member countries, the court did not determine what Body Mass Index (BMI) measurements would define a person as obese. This decision and a determination on the severity of a person’s obesity would be made by each countries’ individual courts.
Kaltoft has welcomed the ECJ’s decision as a victory. He said it was good that obesity can now be classed as “a handicap.” He said he did not see weight loss as a requirement of his job and had not ever considered that his job was at stake. “I hope that municipality realise that it was not okay to fire me,” he said.
International law firm Osborne Clarke’s employment partner Julian Hemming, said the ruling was lacking clarity and would create problems for employers. Hemming added that employers would need to understand wether they are required to make adjustments for obese staff in order to protect themselves against potential claims of discrimination.
Employment law partner at Shakespeares in the U.K. Vanessa Di Cuff, said the judgment was a good decision. She said that while previous legislations offered protection against other types of discrimination, recognizing obesity was a positive step. Di Cuff said that it was right that the ruling has been passed into law.
The next step in Kaltoft’s action against his former employer is for a ruling to be made by the Danish court as to wether his particular weight or BMI can be classed as a disability. Regardless of the final outcome, Kaltoft’s case is set to be the first to be determined under the new EU ruling in which obesity may now be included as a disability in cases against discrimination.
By Monica Grant
Photo by ssalonso – Flickr License