Disease vs. Disability

On June 18, 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to classify obesity as a disease. According to all reports, this decision does not, by itself, carry any legal weight. However, it could influence the way obesity is treated in developing public policy on the issue.

In fact, public policy has been trending this way for a while. One of the earliest cases discussing obesity and disability was Cook v. State of Rhode Island, Department of Mental Health, Retardation, and Hospitals, 10 F.3d 17 (November 1993). In that case, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the Rhode Island Department of Mental Health violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in refusing to hire the plaintiff based on her actual or perceived disability of morbid obesity. The court found the jury determination that the plaintiff met the definition of disability could be supported either because the plaintiff’s morbid obesity was itself the result of an underlying metabolic disorder as testified to by her expert or because the plaintiff was regarded by the employer as disabled by her obesity. Even though this case arose under Section 504, it had significant implications and applicability to this issue under both Section 503 and the Americans with Disab