The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Is obesity a disability? Connecticut case involving corrections officer could decide
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.