Those of you who have attended Reed Group’s prior Quarterly Compliance Webinars may recall a previous discussion of whether or not morbid obesity is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Today, we consider a case where a federal court in the Ninth Circuit is taking a different tack from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) previous approach to this issue.
In Valtierra v. Medtronic Inc., No. CV-15-865-PHX-SMM (D. Ariz. Feb. 3, 2017), a morbidly obese employee claimed to be disabled because of his obesity-related knee and joint problems, as well as difficulty climbing and bending. The court disagreed, joining the Eight, Sixth, and Second Circuits in concluding that an employee’s morbid obesity is not a disability under the ADA unless it falls outside the normal range and is caused by a ‘physiological disorder.’ The court looked to the law defining disability as a ‘physical impairment,’ and the regulations defining a ‘physical impairment’ as “any physiological disorder or condition . . . affecting one or more body systems,” such as neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, reproductive, digestive, immune, or circulatory.” Since the employee could not demonstrate that he had an underlying physiological disorder causing his obesity and knee and joint problems, the court found that the employee was not disabled within the meaning of the ADA.
Employers should take note of this decision, but also be mindful of the fact that the law is not settled on this issue. While this outcome supports the growing majority position in the circuit courts, it appears to be in conflict with EEOC’s previous approach to this issue. Of course, an employer should also be cognizant of whether the employee has other health conditions that could qualify as a disability, and is well-advised to keep in mind that state disability laws may afford greater protections to those with obesity and related conditions.
To ensure you’re managing your ADA and other leaves according to the latest changes in the law and agency interpretations, be sure reach out to ReedGroup for leave management services and products. You can find more information on our website here: https://reedgroup.com/solutions/. Also, be sure to sign up for our next Quarterly Compliance Webinar for further discussion of the latest cases and laws affecting leave of absence.