Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Does the ADA protect the morbidly obese?

Two years ago, I asked whether “obese” qualified as a new protected class under the ADAAA. According to the EEOC in a newly filed lawsuit, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

The Houston Chronicle reports that the EEOC has filed suit against BAE Systems on behalf of Ronald Kratz II, claiming that the 680 pound man was fired because of his obesity. For his part, Kratz claims he was specifically told “he was being terminated because company officials thought he weighed too much”—the most direct of direct evidence, provided that the ADA protects obesity as a disability.

In its complaint, the EEOC alleges:

   12. At the time of his discharge, Kratz was morbidly obese. Kratz’s morbid obesity substantially limits him in one or more major life activities. Morbid obesity is a disability under the ADAAA.

   13. BAE regarded Kratz’s morbid obesity as substantially limiting him in one or more major life activities.

The leading case in the 6th Circuit on the treatment of morbid obesity under the ADA is EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines (2006), which concluded that morbid obesity must be the result of a physiological condition to qualify as an ADA-protected disability.

Later cases, decided under the 2009 ADAAA, however, have called that holding into question. For example, Lowe v. American Eurocopter, LLC (N.D. Miss. 2010) concluded that because of how broadly the ADAAA defines both major life activities for purposes of an actual disability, and “regarded as having” a disability, the ADAAA covers morbid obesity irrespective of whether it is caused by a physiological condition.

As much as it pains me to say it, the Lowe court might be right under the current law. The ADA (as enlarged by the ADAAA) is now so expansive in its coverage that morbid obesity might be covered, even without an underlying physiological cause. Employers, chew on this morsel of information as employees get fat on ADA claims.