Morbid Obesity and the ADA: Maybe Protected, Maybe Not

September 14th, 2006 by

A recent ruling (PDF) by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 6th Circuit confronts the issue of morbid obesity – specifically, whether individuals suffering from that condition are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Stephen Grindle was a driver and freight handler for Watkins Motor Lines. He weighed around 400 pounds. In December 1995, he was climbing a ladder, when a rung broke. (Hmm, potential liability issues here?) He suffered a knee injury. He continued working into January, when he requested time off to rehabilitate his knee. (We assume Grindle collected workers comp, although the court documents are silent on this.)
Following its own written policies, the company agreed to hold Grindle’s position for up to 180 days. Just before that deadline was reached, Grindle produced a letter from his treating physician, releasing him for full duty. The employer balked, because the doctor had no specific knowledge of what the job required Grindle to do. The employer wrote to the doctor, seeking clarification. They never received a response.
So they sent Grindle to their own doctor. Dr. Laurence found that Grindle had a limited range of motion and was unable to safely perform the job. He also writes: “On physical examination, the most notable item is that the patient weighs 405 pounds.” Most notable, indeed.
Having passed the 180 day mark, Watkins terminated Grindle.
Grindle filed a wrongful termination suit with the EEOC in September of 1998. Four years later, the case was dismissed under summary judgment in the employer’s favor (the wheels of justice grind rather slowly…). Grindle appealed. More than 10 years after the incident, the 6th Circuit upheld the lower court ruling.
The Causes of Morbid Obesity
The court focused on two aspects of ADA eligibility: whether morbid obesity was inherently a disability; and whether the employer “regarded” Grindle as a disabled person. We should keep in mind the three causes for morbid obesity listed by the National Institutes for Health: overeating (well, duh!); thyroid disorders; and lack of physical activity (well, duh again). Other sources refer to a possible genetic component.
According to the court, morbid obesity is not inherently an ADA-eligible condition. Specifically, to be eligible under the ADA, there would have to be a physiological cause for the condition. If, for example, Grindle could point to a thyroid problem that caused his obesity, he might indeed be protected by the ADA. His employer would then have been obligated to “reasonably accommodate” him. Justice Gibbons, in her concurrence, added the following intriguing footnote to close out the case:
It is possible that morbid obesity is a disorder that by its very nature has a phsyiological cause. This would preclude the necessity for a plaintiff to put forth evidence that his individual case was caused physiologically. No court or agency has ever adopted this position, however, and the EEOC has put forth no evidence, medical or otherwise, to support such a sweeping conclusion.
Finally, the court did not find any discrimination in the way the employer viewed Grindle. Dr. Laurence’s “most notable item” falls under the heading of “objective observation.”
Lessons for Employers
The employer prevailed in this case because they kept their focus where it belongs: on the specific requirements of the job. The issue was not Grindle’s morbid obesity, but rather his inability to perform the job’s essential functions. He was simply unable to move around with ease, to bend, lift, twist and climb, as the job required him to do. It’s interesting to note that the case may have hinged on what did not take place: in failing to respond to the employer’s request for clarification, Grindle’s own doctor dropped the proverbial ball. In doing so, he sealed Grindle’s fate.
Ten long years after the rung on the ladder gave way, we learn that the employer acted in a reasonable manner. Grindle, at least in the view of the 6th Circuit, is not an individual with a disability, but simply an individual unable to perform the job.