(CN) - Karsten Kaltoft of Billund, Denmark, spent 15 years working as a daycare provider for the city. But in 2010, the city yanked his employment contract and fired him.
The city of Billund claimed to base his dismissal on a dwindling number of children needing care, but did not specify why it chose Kaltoft for the chopping block. What was discussed during his exit interview, however, was the fact that Kaltoft is - and had been throughout his 15-year employment with the city - obese.
Although the city denied Kaltoft's obesity was a motivating factor in his dismissal, the man's union sued for employment discrimination. The Danish court hearing the case asked the European Court of Justice whether EU law prohibits obesity discrimination at all, and whether obesity can be considered a disability for employment-law purposes.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, the EU high court held that obese persons are not - in and of themselves - a protected class of people under either Europe's employment laws or in its constitution. But the condition may be a disability that must be accommodated like any other limitation, the court said.
"That concept of 'disability' must be understood as referring not only to the impossibility of exercising a professional activity, but also to a hindrance to the exercise of such an activity," the Luxembourg-based court wrote. "Any other interpretation would be incompatible with the objective of EU law, which aims in particular to enable a person with a disability to have access to or participate in employment."
The court added: "The concept of 'disability' does not depend on the extent to which the person may or may not have contributed to the onset of his disability."
Like any disabled worker, employers must make accommodations so that employees can work - and advance - like anyone else. The fact that the city of Billund may not have accommodated Kaltoft does not mean he can't be considered disabled under the law, the court said.
The Danish court must decided whether Kaltoft meets the EU's legal definition of disabled, which "must be understood as referring to a limitation which results in particular from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers," the court concluded.
Interestingly, the city of Billund gave Kaltoft - as part of its health initiative - financial incentives to lose weight in 2008. He lost weight but gained it back by the following year, according to the opinion.
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