The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Is obesity a disability? Connecticu­t case involving correction­s officer could decide

- By Jordan Nathaniel Fenster

A Connecticu­t court is being asked to decide if obesity is a disability and, in doing so, may pit one state agency against another.

The court case involves a state correction­s officer who applied to be part of a special unit but claims he was harassed and bullied publicly for being too fat before he was denied a promotion for which he had applied, according to his attorney Alex Taubes.

“My client was mocked, assaulted, hazed, and publicly humiliated because of his weight, and then he was discrimina­ted against because of this and passed over not only for the unit he was training for but for countless promotions since then — since he’s spoken up about this,” Taubes said.

According to Taubes his client is not very heavy and his weight had not affected his work performanc­e. “He’s undergoing physical assessment testing. They keep telling him, ‘You’re too fat, you’re too fat, too fat.’ Meanwhile, he’s actually passing all these tests.”

That’s the issue and the reason why the Connecticu­t Commission on Human Rights and Opportunit­ies joined Taubes in the case against the state attorney general’s office, as it represents the state Department of Correction­s. Taubes client claims he was discrimina­ted against not because he was too fat, but because of the perception he was too fat.

The claim, referred to as a “regarded as” claim, means a person does not have an impairment but is treated as having one. As Taubes explained, “If you think that someone in your workplace has AIDS, and so you ostracize them and you discrimina­te against them and you don’t pay them as much as other people even if it turns out this person didn’t actually have AIDS, that’s still discrimina­tion on the basis of disability because you regarded them as disabled.”

According to one attorney, the case also raises the question: Do state employees have the same disability protection­s as private sector workers?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 in Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett that the Americans with Disabiliti­es Act employment discrimina­tion law does not apply to state employees due to sovereign immunity.

Holly Ann Wonneberge­r, representi­ng the attorney general’s office, told the court earlier this month that according to state law, where state employees are concerned, “The mental disability definition specifical­ly includes language of coverage for people regarded as having a mental disability whereas physically disabled specifical­ly does not.”

However, Taubes maintains, “The CHRO has been taking the position that state employees should have the same protection­s under discrimina­tion law as someone working for IBM or someone working for General Electric.”

CHRO declined to comment on this story, saying the agency does not comment on pending cases, but attorneys argued in a brief that the State Supreme Court’s decision in a previous Connecticu­t case, Connecticu­t Judicial Branch v. Gilbert, puts state and private employees on an equal level.

Connecticu­t’s anti-discrimina­tion statute “is a general prohibitio­n against discrimina­tion by public and private parties alike,” the court wrote in that case.

Judge Susan Q. Cobb told Wonneberge­r in court that before she can rule on whether the correction­s officer is eligible for disability protection, it needs to be determined whether obesity is a disability under the law.

“You want me to determine first if perceived disability falls within the statute, but I think the first question is is overweight­ness a disability under the statute, and if it’s not, then you can’t bring a claim against the state for that,” Cobb said.

As CHRO attorney Anna-Marie Puryear told the court, the law defines a disability as “a chronic physical handicap, infirmity or impairment,” and, in this case, “the chronic physical infirmity or impairment is obesity or overweight­ness as that is classified by the American Medical Associatio­n.”

“Ultimately, what we’re saying is obesity is a disability,” Puryear told the court. “And the perception that someone is obese or overweight is covered under the statute.”

In 2021, the Connecticu­t legislatur­e passed a measure “formally recognizin­g the attorney general’s role in combating hate and defending civil rights,” according to a press release, and created a hate crimes unit within the attorney general’s office.

“Hate and discrimina­tion are real threats to our state and to our nation, and the civil rights promised to us all should be enjoyed equally,” Attorney General William Tong said in a release at the time. “My office is ready to take on this important work and to proactivel­y seek justice for those whose rights and liberties are under attack.”

In fighting the claim that obesity should be considered a disability under state law, Taubes said, the attorney general’s office is arguing against both the CHRO, a separate Connecticu­t agency, and Attorney General William Tong’s administra­tive goals.

“There’s a civil rights unit in the office, and there’s also a unit that’s arguing against civil rights,” Taubes said. “That is what I think is going to create a very big problem for Connecticu­t law.”

Elizabeth Benton, spokespers­on for Tong’s office, said in an email that the case does not demonstrat­e a conflict between the attorney general’s statutory required defense of state agencies — in this case, the Department of Correction­s — and Tong’s stated desire to defend civil rights.

 ?? Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? A state correction­s officer claims he was harassed and bullied publicly for being overweight, and denied a promotion for which he had applied.
Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticu­t Media A state correction­s officer claims he was harassed and bullied publicly for being overweight, and denied a promotion for which he had applied.

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