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Second Circuit Weighs in on Obesity as a Disability - New York State Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) Issues Remanded

In an important new decision arising from an overweight person’s claims of disability discrimination, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has concluded that there is no individual liability for retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Spiegel v. Schulmann, No. 06-5914 (2d Cir. May 6, 2010).  The Second Circuit also confirmed in Spiegel that excessive weight, standing alone, does not constitute a protected disability under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), but the court left open the possibility that obesity may nonetheless fall within the broader definition of “disability” found in the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

Plaintiff Elliott Spiegel filed a lawsuit in which he claimed that his employment as a karate instructor by the Tiger Schulmann Karate School was terminated because of his weight, in violation of the ADA, the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL.  The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the complaint in its entirety.  The court found that Spiegel could not sustain a claim under the ADA because, under that statute, “obesity alone is not a physical impairment unless it results from a physiological disorder” of the sort described in the relevant section of the Code of Federal Regulations, and Spiegel had not produced any admissible evidence that his weight was the result of a recognized medical condition.  The court also dismissed Spiegel’s claim under the NYSHRL for essentially the same reason, citing a decision by New York State’s highest court interpreting the law and holding that “weight, in and of itself, does not constitute a disability for discrimination qualification purposes,” but plaintiffs who are “medically incapable of meeting . . . weight requirements due to some cognizable medical condition” may be disabled.  The district court also dismissed Spiegel’s NYCHRL claim while noting the possibility that he actually might be disabled under that statute’s broader definition of disability.  The district court found that Spiegel had introduced no admissible evidence that the defendants’ stated reasons for dismissing him were merely a pretext for disability discrimination.

On appeal, the Second Circuit held that Spiegel’s ADA claim had been properly dismissed, because there can be no individual liability for retaliation under the ADA; the court did not reach the issue of whether excessive weight, standing alone, may constitute a protected disability under the ADA.  The court also affirmed the dismissal of Spiegel’s claim under the NYSHRL because “New York courts have determined that, under the NYSHRL, ‘weight, in and of itself, does not constitute a disability . . . .”  Thus, only if he were medically incapable of losing weight might Spiegel have qualified as disabled under the NYSHRL.  And while Spiegel claimed his excessive weight was due to an underlying hormonal imbalance, the Second Circuit found that there was no competent medical evidence to confirm a connection between his medical condition and his inability to lose weight.

However, the Second Circuit reinstated Spiegel’s claim under the NYCHRL, finding that his account of certain remarks by his supervisors as to why they discharged him had been improperly excluded as hearsay.  The Second Circuit agreed with the district court’s speculation that excessive weight, taken alone, might be sufficient to support a claim of discrimination under the NYCHRL, but it noted that, “[a]s a result of the district court’s incorrect evidentiary determination, the district court did not address the question whether obesity alone constitutes a disability pursuant to the NYCHRL.”  It therefore remanded the case to the district court, “so that the district court may consider in the first instance whether obesity is a disability under the NYCHRL.”  The Second Circuit noted that the definition of disability under the NYCHRL is broader than that provided by the NYSHRL.  It did suggest, however, that the district court might appropriately decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction and dismiss the NYCHRL claim without prejudice, leaving it to New York state courts to answer the question of whether obesity alone constitutes a disability under the NYCHRL.

The Spiegel decision is a compelling reminder that the scope of the New York City Human Rights Law is broader than that of its New York State and federal counterparts.  Thus, employers should be mindful of the fact that an alleged disability that would not be covered by state or federal law may still constitute a protected disability under the NYCHRL.  In particular, while the question of whether obesity constitutes a disability under the NYCHRL awaits a determination by the district court in Spiegel (and, ultimately, a definitive decision by New York’s state courts), New York City employers should not necessarily reject the notion that an obese employee or applicant may be entitled to legal protection as a disabled individual.

© 2020 Vedder PriceNational Law Review, Volume , Number 256


About this Author

Daniel C. Green, Vedder Price Law Firm, Commercial Litigation Attorney

Daniel C. Green joined Vedder Price as an associate in the Litigation and Labor and Employment Practice Areas.

While in law school, Daniel was a staff member of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, and authored a chapter on the subject of prison security classification for A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual, a publication of the Human Rights Law Review. Daniel spent the summer following his first year of law school working in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of General Counsel.