EAT Finds an Obese Employee Was Disabled Under Discrimination Law

In the recent case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd UK EAT/0097/12 the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) overturned an Employment Judge’s decision and held that an obese Claimant was disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA 1995).

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 a person has a disability if they had a “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term effect on his ability to carry out normal day to day activities” (section 1(1), DDA 1995). The definition under the Equality Act 2010 is identical.

In this case the Claimant, who weighed 21 stone, suffered from numerous physical and mental conditions including asthma, knee problems, bowel problems, anxiety and depression, all of which caused the Claimant difficulty on a day to day basis. In deciding that the Claimant was not disabled for the purposes of the DDA 1995 the Employment Tribunal concluded that, on the basis that no “physical or organic cause” for the Claimant’s condition could be found other than his obesity, he was not disabled for the purposes of the DDA 1995. However, this decision was overturned by the EAT. The EAT concluded that when deciding whether or not a person is disabled, the first question is whether or not the individual has an impairment. The second issue is whether or not this impairment is physical or mental. The cause of the impairment is only relevant as an evidential issue in supporting a submission that, the Claimant does not in fact suffer from a condition. This was not the case in the present circumstances.

The EAT made it clear that obesity itself does not render a person disabled. However, conditions arising from obesity may make it more likely that a Tribunal will find a Claimant is disabled.

The EAT’s decision makes it clear that when deciding upon a person’s disability for the purposes of the DDA 1995 (and therefore the Equality Act 2010) it is the impairment itself that should be considered rather than its cause. Employers therefore need to be mindful as to an actual impairment suffered by an employee rather than its perceived cause.