When the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) passed into law 18 years ago, its vague terminology led many to speculate about how expansively it would be read by the federal courts that would be called upon to implement it. But much to the relief of employers, the federal courts have been willing to read the ADA’s provisions more restrictively than many had feared.
One of the grey areas of the ADA was whether morbid obesity, as one example, as a covered disability. This question has been answered by at least three different regional, federal courts of appeals over the years, and the answer is “no”.
One such case, EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., was brought by the EEOC in support of a dock worker who was not allowed to return from an injury leave after the employee’s own physician found him unable to perform his job safely. The worker had weighed 345 pounds prior to his injury, but while out recuperating, he ballooned to 405 pounds, leaving him unable to engage in much of any physical activity without shortness of breath.
The employee argued that the employer had to accommodate the employee’s morbid obesity, and that the refusal to provide an accommodation for the employee’s return to work violated the ADA. But despite the EEOC’s support for the employee, the appeals court held for the employer.
According to the court, “physical characteristics that are not the result of a physiological disorder” do not qualify for protection under the ADA. The employee would not be considered “disabled” simply because his physical characteristics might be considered “abnormal” by many.
The courts’ rulings leave open the prospect of morbid obesity qualifying as a protected disability if the condition is the result of an underlying pathology. But the accumulation of extreme excess weight simply due to poor diet and lack of exercise – causes that might be considered the fault of the employee – does not qualify the employee for ADA protection. For further information, please contact MG Law.
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