As the ADA’s 20th anniversary nears, let’s revisit one of its lofty goals: to place a sweeping federal blanket over the patchwork of state and federal laws that protects individuals with disabilities.

A recent Second Circuit opinion leaves no doubt that the patchwork lives on  In Spiegel v. Schulmann, decided on May 6, 2010, a karate instructor claimed his employer fired him because he was obese due to a medical condition. According to the decision, he weighed 300 pounds and his employer told him that he was not be a good role model due to his weight.

The plaintiff sued for disability discrimination under the ADA, the New York State Human Rights  Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.  The Second Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer on the ADA claim. The district court had held that even if obesity were an impairment under the ADA, plaintiff did not produce any evidence to suggest his obesity makes him “unable to perform a major life activity or significantly restricts the condition, manner or duration in which he can perform a major life activity.”  

The New York Human Rights Law protects those with conditions which prevent “the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques,“ a definition broader than the ADA’s. The Second Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer on the state claim, holding that weight is not a “disability” under that law unless the plaintiff produced evidence that he was medically incapable of meeting the employer’s weight requirements, which the plaintiff here did not produce.  

The New York City Human Rights Law’s definition of “disability” is even broader than the state’s, defining disability as “any physical, medical, mental or psychological impairment” of any system of the body. Since no state appellate court has decided whether obesity is a disability under the NYCHRL, the Second Circuit remanded the case to make this determination. 

One termination, three disability laws, three “disability” definitions and three different analyses…. sounds like the patchwork is alive and well. Employers assessing disability discrimination risk must consider all pieces of this patchwork to identify state and local laws offering broader protection than the ADA..