Obesity May Be a Disability Under California Law

Employees claiming bias must show that their obesity has a physiological cause

By Joanne Deschenaux January 11, 2018

A severely obese woman who was fired from an athletic club after working there for more than 15 years was entitled to a trial on her disability discrimination claim under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the California Court of Appeal ruled.

Under California law, obesity may be a disability—but only when the plaintiff can prove that the obesity has a physiological cause. The trial court erred in dismissing the claim before trial because the plaintiff introduced evidence that her obesity was genetically determined and the employer failed to refute this evidence, the appellate court concluded.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Manage Disability Accommodations in California]

The plaintiff has been obese since childhood, and her weight interferes with several daily life functions, including bathing, walking and using transportation. She cannot stand for more than an hour, cannot walk more than a mile at a time and often experiences significant shortness of breath from engaging in basic activities.

She began working part time for the Berkeley Tennis Club as a lifeguard and pool manager in 1997 while she was a college student. She eventually became a night manager and continued to work at the club after graduating from college in 2001, reporting to the club's general manager. In 2011, she took on additional duties and began working about 40 hours a week as a night manager, day manager and tennis court washer. She consistently received positive reviews, merit bonuses and raises throughout this period.

Rigoberto Headley became the general manager of the club in 2012. The plaintiff alleged that Headley cut her hours, refused to allow her to apply for a position for which she was qualified and paid her less than a new hire doing the same job. She also claimed that Headley asked all employees to wear uniforms, failed to buy one that fit her and then criticized her for failing to comply with the uniform policy. The plaintiff was fired a few months after Headley began work, allegedly for attempting to record a meeting of the club's board of directors.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit in May 2014 asserting, among other claims, disability discrimination under FEHA. The trial court dismissed all the claims before trial, and the plaintiff appealed. The appellate court reversed as to the disability bias claim.

Physiological Cause

Under FEHA, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee because of a "physical disability." The plaintiff must first show that she suffered from a disability, could perform the essential duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodations, and was subject to an adverse employment action because of the disability.

The employer is then required to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment decision. The plaintiff then gets the opportunity to show that the legitimate reasons offered were false, creating an inference that those reasons served as a pretext for discrimination.

In Cassista v. Community Foods, Inc. (1993), the California Supreme Court held that weight may qualify as a protected disability within the meaning of FEHA if medical evidence demonstrates that it results from a physiological condition affecting one or more of the basic bodily systems and that it limits a major life activity.

In this case, the club sought dismissal of the discrimination claim on the basis that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of showing that her obesity is a physical disability under FEHA. The plaintiff submitted proof that her obesity was genetically determined, and the club argued that obesity with a genetic cause cannot qualify as a physical disability. The trial court seemed to accept this argument in dismissing the claim, but the appellate court disagreed.

The pertinent question, the appeals court said, is whether a genetic cause qualifies as a "physiological cause." Quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, the court noted that "physiological" means "relating to the functioning of living organisms."

"This term encompasses genetics," the court said. It then rejected the conclusion that the plaintiff could not establish her claim by proving that her obesity has a genetic cause and ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to a trial on her bias claim.

Cornell v. Berkeley Tennis Club, Calif. Ct. App., No. A147516 (Dec. 21, 2017).

Professional Pointer: While it is established law in California that obesity is a protected disability only if the plaintiff can show a physiological cause for that condition, this case shows that it is not clear what type of evidence suffices to show that cause. An employer could make a costly mistake in assuming an employee's obesity does not have a physiological cause and is therefore not protected under FEHA.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.


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