Last Thursday, 12th June 2014, the European Court of Justice heard a landmark discrimination case that was brought by Karsten Kaltoft of Denmark. Mr. Kaltoft alleges that he was discriminated against when he was dismissed by his employer because of his weight (approximately 25 stone). The case is the first of its kind to be referred to the EU and could have extensive consequences.

The Danish man was employed by his local authority – Billund local authority – as a child-minder. Kaltoft claims that his weight did not affect his ability to perform his child-minding duties; however, the Court heard that he was unable to do tasks like tying a child’s shoe laces without a colleague’s help.

The question that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) must consider is whether Mr Kaltoft’s obesity falls within the classification of a “disability” under EU law.

The Court’s decision, which is expected in a few weeks, will alter the EU’s Directive on Employment Equality which outlaws discrimination on disability grounds. The Court’s decision will be binding across all EU member states, including Ireland.

If Kaltoft is successful in his arguments, obesity will be redefined so as to be categorised as a disability.

The USA has already seen several individual workers receive compensation from their former employers as a result of being dismissed due to their obese status.

Until now, the UK courts have rejected obesity as a disability in its own right; however, if the ECJ finds that Mr. Kaltoft was, in fact, unfairly dismissed, employers throughout Europe will be bound by the ECJ ruling and will be forced to treat obesity as a disability going forward. Such a decision would, in future, force employers to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments – for instance, they may have to provide preferential access to parking (as is currently the case for disabled drivers). The ECJ ruling could also restrict employers from rejecting job candidates because of their weight.

According to a 2011 Oireachtas Library & Research Service report, ‘Obesity – a growing problem’, a staggering 61% of adults in Ireland are overweight or obese.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a number calculated based on a person’s weight and height. Anyone with a BMI of 30 or more is classed as clinically obese.

Employers must pay attention to the ECJ decision in the Kaltoft obesity case as it may establish a precedent across all EU member states which could have major implications for employers.

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