The Employment Relationship: A Weighty Matter. #EmploymentLaw

Recently the United States was surpassed by Mexico as the most obese nation. Of course this doesn’t change the fact that many people in the United States are overweight. While reasonable minds may disagree as to the severity of the issue or what to do about it, from my perspective as an employment law attorney, at least we can all agree that the law should not allow a person’s weight to affect his or her ability to make a living. Or should it?

Tara Costa, a former contestant on the popular reality television show “Biggest Loser,” reportedly lost 155 pounds during her time on the show. Now her weight is at issue in a different context, with a company suing Ms. Costa, alleging that she breached a contract by putting on too much weight.

According to news reports out recently, a lawsuit filed by the company FC Online Marketing, Inc. alleges that, following Ms. Costa’s success on “Biggest Loser,” FC Online hired Ms. Costa as a spokesperson. However, after Ms. Costa regained 45 pounds (as the company alleges), she was unfit to be a spokesperson and was in breach of her contract.

Whether Ms. Costa actually gained weight and whether that resulted in a breach of contract will depend on the evidence and on the terms of her contract. While not all of the details of this case are available, it does raise some interesting questions. For example, is it legal for a person to be fired for being overweight?

In Arizona, state law provides that the employment relationship “is severable at the pleasure of either the employee or employer” unless there is a written contract which would limit a person’s right to terminate the employment relationship. (Arizona Revised Statutes § 23-1501). Where there is no written contract, generally a person can quit or be fired at any time. However, there are important exceptions to this rule.

For example, the law does not allow anyone to be terminated based on the person’s race or sex. Likewise, a person with a legally-recognized disability cannot be terminated for having the disability where an employer’s reasonable accommodation will allow the person to perform the required job duties. A disability may be a hearing or speech impairment, AIDS, diabetes, or a number of other things. However, what qualifies as a disability is not always clear and often depends on the court hearing the case. On the question of whether obesity is a disability for purposes of employment discrimination has been handled different by various courts in different jurisdictions. At the very least, an employer takes a risk by terminating an employee because of a weight issue. A person facing termination because of being overweight is well-advised to meet with an attorney to discuss his legal options.