We are often asked whether overweight or obese people have legal protection against discrimination. The answer is usually no – but the issues were carefully examined in the recent case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd.
Mr Walker was suffering from a number of health problems and weighed over 21 stone. He brought a disability discrimination claim and the first thing the Employment Tribunal had to decide was whether he met the definition of disability in the Equality Act.
For the purposes of the Equality Act, someone is disabled if the suffer from a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial adverse impact on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities.
The difficulty in Mr Walker’s case was that there was no recognised cause for his various conditions. It was argued that he was suffering from ‘functional overlay’ which is where emotional reaction exacerbates or prolongs symptoms of an existing condition – but there was no suggestion that the functional overlay was caused by mental illness. The employer did not seek to question whether Mr Walker’s health problems were genuine, but argued that the various problems could not amount to a disability where the cause had not been identified. That view was accepted by the Tribunal Judge, but Mr Walker appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).
The EAT found that Mr Walker did meet the definition of disability, and that the judge should have looked at the effect of Mr Walker’s conditions, rather than the cause. If the genuineness of the symptoms was in issue, the lack of a cause might be of significance, but that did not apply in this case.
In our view it has to be correct that the Tribunal look at the effect rather than the cause – given his long list of conditions and the significant effects on his life, it would be a strange result if Mr Walker were not considered disabled.
The same approach applies where health problems are caused by addictions. Although addictions are specifically excluded from the definition of disability, the effects are not – so if someone with alcoholism is suffering from liver problems, the liver problems can still mean they meet the definition in the Equality Act.
For employers this is a useful reminder that if there is doubt, it is generally safest to treat an employee as a disabled person. Where possible it is always best to take legal and medical advice, as the liabilities for disability discrimination can be significant.
We have expertise in discrimination law so if you need help please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).