In December 2014, there was a tribunal case in the European courts involving a man who was dismissed because he was morbidly obese (Kaltoft v Municipality of Billund (C-354/13). The case attracted huge public interest and a debate ensued in the press. The case is without a doubt relevant to the prevalence of obesity within our recent society. Recent statistics suggest that over a quarter of the adult population in the UK is obese and this case invites a new discussion of how obesity should be perceived from a legal point of view and how it should be regarded in the work place.
The case in brief –
Mr Kaltoft was employed on a permanent contract as a childminder for over 15 years. For the entire period of his employment Mr Kaltoft was deemed obese, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). Mr Kaltoft is 1.72 metres tall and wights over 160 kilograms. He was employed by his city council and as part of their health policy they provided him financial assistance to engage in a fitness programme. Initially Mr Kaltoft lost weight, but he subsequently regained the weight over time. Whilst having a period of time off work, Mr Kaltoft was visited by the head of the childminders who wished to inquire into his weight loss. During this time his weight remained unchanged.
Due to a decrease in the number of children being cared for by the local council, the education inspectors were requested to dismiss a childminder. The decision was put to the head of the childminders and it was decided that Kaltoft should leave. In 2010, Kaltoft was informed over the telephone that they intended to dismiss him. Dismissal procedures went under way and when Mr Kaltoft asked why he had been chosen, it was inferred that it was to do with his obesity. This was later denied by the respondant and it was insisted that it was only to do with the decline in the number of children being cared for. But they failed to give a full explanation as to why it was that he was chosen from the pool of childminders.
The case was considered and judgement stated that there was no principle of EU law that protects the claimant along discrimination grounds. Yet they went onto say that severe obesity, when an individual has a BMI of over 40, can come under the definition of a disability. It is important to note that the opinion was that severe obesity can, not must, amount to a disability. In the case of Kaltoft, his obesity was not inhibiting his professional abilities. He had been obese for the entirety of the 15 years he was employed as a childcare worker, with no ill effects. The assessment of a disability due to weight therefore rides on the how the individual copes with aspects of endurance, mobility and mood within the workplace. The cause of obesity and whether the individual is responsible for their condition is not relevant to the definition of a disability.
Potential future effect of the court’s judgement
The reason why this European decision is potentially interesting in UK jurisdiction is because the foundations of disability discrimination law in the UK, has its origins from the European Equal Treatment Framework Directive, which is then incorporated into UK legislation through the Equality Act 2010. In the Equality Act 2010 a person is considered having a disability if ‘he or she has a physical or mental impairment and it has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. The UK courts do not deem obesity a disability in itself, but this case may open up the UK courts to consider whether cases of severe obesity in itself amounts to a disability. This is subject to the full Court of Justice of the European Union’s final ruling which will take place at some point later in the year.
Subject to this ruling’s outcome (currently set for sometime this year) this may have a costly implication on employers who might be required to reassess work environments and consider making reasonable adjustments to accommodate the individual. This also could also effect their recruitment process and perhaps a stricter monitoring of work-place ‘banter’.