Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
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Litigation

Weight Discrimination Lawsuits

With the exception of potential plaintiffs in Michigan, Washington DC, Santa Cruz, CA and San Francisco, CA, Madison, WI, Binghamton, NY, and Urbana IL people who have been discriminated against based on their weight have little legal recourse. (See Weight Discrimination Legislation) Federal legislation offers little to no protection against weight discrimination. The Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. § 1983) protects against discrimination by governmental or quasi-governmental entities based on race and national origin, firstly, and gender and illegitimacy, secondly. Discrimination by these entities based on any other characteristic receives deference by the courts as long as the action is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. In practice, few governmental actions fail this test.

People who have been discriminated against based on their weight have attempted to sue under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act (RA) of 1973. See 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. and 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq. These sections govern disability discrimination by the federal, state and local governments and the private sector and protect against discrimination in employment, public services, and privately owned accommodations. The initial drawback of suing under the ADA and the RA is that a potential plaintiff must claim that he or she is either disabled or “regarded as” disabled in order to prevail. In the past courts that have addressed lawsuits like these have found that overweight or obesity is not considered a disability by itself. However, the ADA Amendments Act has changed this for discrimination based on morbid obesity.

Lawsuits By or Against the Industry and Government

There are numerous bases under which lawsuits may be appropriate by or against a member of the food and beverage industry, or by a city, state, or the federal government. The food and beverage industry may sue a government entity for enacting laws and regulations that the industry finds violates its rights. One example is the lawsuit by the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA) vs. New York City et al., which the industry lost in federal court. The NYSRA sued the city to prevent the city from enforcing a menu-labeling law that required food-service establishments that posted nutrition information elsewhere to post the calorie counts of the foods and beverages sold directly on the menu boards. There are also numerous bases under which a private group may sue the food or beverage industry. One example is the Center for Science in the Public Interest's lawsuit against Burger King to stop using trans fat oil in their products or to put warnings on their menus. The government may also bring an action against industry for violating a legislative or regulatory mandate. For example, the Federal Trade Commission brought an administrative action against Kellogg’s for its claim that Rice Krispies cereals supported children’s immunity.

"Cheeseburger Bills"

Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act and the Commonsense Consumption Act were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, both seeking to shield fast-food restaurants from being sued by individuals claiming civil damages in 2004 and 2005. The federal bills have failed to pass thus far, but twenty-five states enacted similar legislation shielding fast-food establishments from liability. These laws preempt potential litigants' ability to bring such lawsuits.