Sixth Circuit Holds That Obesity is Not a Disability as Defined by the ADA

On September 14, 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that morbid obesity, unless caused by a physiological disorder or condition, was not a defined disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Title I of the ADA was intended to eliminate disability discrimination in employment. The Act prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability regarding job application procedures, hiring, advancement, discharge, compensation, training or other terms or conditions of employment. An employee is disabled if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. When the major life activity from which the employee claims disability is “work itself,” the employee must demonstrate that he was unable to work in a broad class of jobs.

Stephen Grindle was hired in 1990 by Watkins Motor Lines as a driver/dock worker. Sixty-five percent of his time was spent loading and unloading freight. The job description required climbing, kneeling, bending, stooping, balancing, reaching and heavy lifting. When he was hired in 1990, Grindle weighed 345 pounds. During employment, his weight fluctuated between 340 and 450 pounds. In 1995, he injured his knee descending a ladder at work. Following a leave of absence, he was examined by the employer’s doctor, who noted that Grindle could duck and squat, but was “short of breath after a few steps.” The doctor noted Grindle’s weight of 405 weight and determined Grindle could not safely perform the job requirements. Grindle was terminated when he was unable to return to work after 180 days.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission initiated a claim on Grindle’s behalf. They argued that Grindle was not disabled, but wrongfully regarded as such by the employer (i.e., Grindle had an actual impairment, morbid obesity, that the employer wrongfully believed affected his ability to do the job). Watkins Motor Lines concluded that Grindle’s morbid obesity affected his ability to do the job. Thus, the Court was left to determine whether Grindle’s morbid obesity was an ADA impairment.

The central purpose of the ADA is to prevent disability discrimination, not discrimination in general. Extending the ADA to physical characteristics would exceed that purpose of the Act and create a catch-all cause of action for discrimination based on appearance, size and every other physical characteristic. Thus, consistent with the definitions found in the statute, the Court ruled that obesity, even morbid obesity, was not a defined disability unless it was caused by a physiological disorder or condition. Employers may continue to select and classify employees based on job-related physical characteristics, as long as the physical characteristic is not a physical impairment as defined by the Act.

This case demonstrates the Sixth Circuit’s continued strict statutory construction of the ADA. The Court previously rejected efforts to expand the definitions of employment disability discrimination by rejecting arguments that prohibits the provision of unequal or separate benefits by place of public accommodation to the employment setting. There is currently a split among the Circuit Courts regarding the application of Title II of the ADA, which prohibits the provision of benefits, services or programs by a public entity to the employment setting. It is anticipated the Sixth Circuit will resolve this dispute, applying the same strict statutory construction to conclude that Title I alone defines and applies to employment disability discrimination.

Timothy Ferrand is a partner in our Clinton Township office where he concentrates his practice on municipal law, employment and labor law, litigation, and law enforcement. He may be reached at (586) 228-5600 or tferrand@cmda-law.com.