A well-worn phrase opines that it is “not what you say but how you say it.” Believe it or not, your disability discrimination case may be somewhat like that. Sometimes, the key to success is not proving that you were harmed based upon a condition you had, but instead lies with connecting that condition (when it is not itself a recognized disability) with something else that is a recognized disability.
For example, obesity by itself isn’t a recognized disability in New Jersey. However, if you prove that your obesity is actually a symptom of some other physical health or mental health disability, then your disability discrimination case may go from hopeless to a potential success. In other words, there are often more options out there for you than you might have thought. Explore those options by contacting a knowledgeable New Jersey discrimination attorney about your situation right away.
The case of one New Jersey bus driver was an unfortunate example of the importance of this connection. C.D. had worked for the same employer as a bus driver from 2005 to 2015. During that time, he passed all his required physical exams and won several awards for his work. During that decade, the driver weighed between 500 and 600 pounds. In 2015, the employer’s physician did not give C.D. a “pass” on his physical exam. He remained out of work for 10 months before he filed a complaint against the employer.
In his Law Against Discrimination lawsuit, the driver claimed that the employer discriminated against him because of his weight. The driver alleged that he was on the receiving end of rude comments like ‘fat,” “as big as a bus” and “must weight a thousand pounds,” among other things.
While inappropriate and derogatory comments can be strong evidence of a winning discrimination case, that’s not all you need. A successful New Jersey disability discrimination action requires that you have a recognized disability, that your employer knew (or perceived) you to be disabled, that your employer took an adverse action against you and that the employer did so based upon that disability or perceived disability.
In the bus driver’s case, he had ample proof that he was morbidly obese. What he lacked, however, was proof that his obesity amounted to a disability under New Jersey law. In 2002, the Supreme Court clarified that obesity can be a disability under New Jersey law, but only if it is “caused by bodily injury, birth defect[,] or illness.” The bus driver’s case didn’t have that connection. In the 2002 case, the discriminated worker had ample proof to link his obesity to a “genetic metabolic condition,” making his condition a recognized disability.
Many cases of obesity are fueled by other underlying medical issues
There are many medical conditions that can lead to obesity. They include hypothyroidism, insulin resistance, Cushing’s syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and depression. So, if you have suffered adverse treatment at work (such as termination, demotion, denial of promotion, hostile work environment, etc.) due to your obesity, you may be able to present a successful case. To succeed, though, you need adequate medical evidence that persuasively ties your obesity to a recognized medical condition, whether that is a physical injury that greatly limits your ability to exercise or a medical disorder that affects your appetite or ability to metabolize food (such as thyroid problems or Prader-Willi Syndrome.)
Many people who become so obese that their weights exceed 500 pounds have underlying medical conditions that influence their weight. Had this bus driver had that kind of medical evidence connecting his obesity to another condition, he might have been able to secure a much different result.
While this obese worker did not succeed, many other workers who suffer discrimination based upon their weight may potentially be entitled to compensation for disability discrimination under the Law Against Discrimination. The key is to make that inquiry and get the legal advice you need. The skilled New Jersey employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help, offering our many years of experience handling a full range of discrimination cases, including disability discrimination matters. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and to find out how we can help.