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Obese employee held to be disabled under discrimination law

11th April, 2013

In the case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd UKEAT/0097/12 the Employment Appeal Tribunal (“EAT”) held that an obese claimant was disabled under the now repealed Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (“DDA”). The President of the EAT refused to accept that obesity is a disability itself but said that if an individual is obese, it may mean they are more likely to be recognised as disabled. The legal definition of disability was found in section 1(1) of the DDA (now the Equality Act 2010 (“EqA 2010”)). A person has a disability for the purposes of discrimination legislation if they have a “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” Although the EqA 2010 repealed and replaced the DDA, the definition of disability remained the same.

The claimant, Mr Walker, weighed over 21 stone and suffered from a range of physical and mental conditions as a result of his obesity (including anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma and problems with his knees and bowel). He said that he suffered from a “functional overlay” which was exacerbated by his obesity. The Employment Tribunal (“ET”) rejected his claim for disability discrimination, concluding that he was not disabled because the medical evidence he had produced showed no physical or mental cause for his symptoms aside from his obesity. In particular, an occupational health specialist had concluded that a significant part of Mr Walker’s symptoms were due to “a functional/behavioural component.”

Mr Walker appealed to the EAT. The EAT rejected the approach of the ET and his claim was upheld by the President, Mr Justice Langstaff sitting alone. The EAT held that in considering whether a person is disabled within the legal definition of disability, the focus should be on the effect of the person’s symptoms rather than the cause. Langstaff P stated that the questions which should be answered when considering whether an individual is disabled are as follows:
1. Whether or not the individual has an impairment? If the answer is yes;
2. Whether the impairment is physical or mental?

Langstaff P considered that given Mr Walker had suffered for a long time from a number of physical and mental impairments which resulted in substantial impairment and had an adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, the only possible conclusion in the circumstances was that he was indeed disabled. He noted that an impairment lacking in a cause is an evidential issue rather than a legal one. If there is no evident cause the judge can decide whether or not the individual actually suffers from the impairment as claimed. Langstaff P held that as there had been no challenge to Mr Walker’s evidence in relation to what he claimed he suffered from, he had therefore met the requirements set out in the legal definition of disability.

If a claim for disability discrimination is successful, the potential level compensation which can be awarded is unlimited. It is therefore fundamental that your business minimises the risks of such claims being brought against it. For advice in relation to dealing with claims of disability discrimination, please contact Claire Brook on 01244 405575 or send an email to [email protected].


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