Is Morbid Obesity a Protected Disability? Ninth Circuit Weighs In But Doesn’t Answer the Question
Today’s post highlights one of many examples of cases employers should never have to spend tens of thousands of dollars litigating. In this case, Valtierra v. Medtronic, the plaintiff worked for Medtronic for 10 years and apparently was obese throughout his employment. Plaintiff, whose job was to maintain and repair Medtronic’s manufacturing equipment, admittedly falsified computer records to indicate that he had completed repair assignments when, in fact, he had not done the work. Medtronic fired him (duh). Unable to accept personal responsibility for his own misconduct, Plaintiff sued Medtronic, alleging that he was fired because of his purported disability – morbid obesity. Medtronic moved for summary judgment in the trial court, arguing that morbid obesity is not a “disability” within the meaning of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and that Plaintiff did not have a valid legal claim as a result. Medtronic alternatively argued that even if Plaintiff’s obesity was a protected disability, Medtronic did not fire him because of it, but rather because of his admitted misconduct. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Medtronic, holding that Plaintiff’s obesity was not a protected disability as a matter of law. Not to be deterred, Plaintiff appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit.
Today the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion, affirming the win for Medtronic, but on different grounds than the trial court. The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that four other circuit courts of appeal have held that morbid obesity is not a protected disability under the ADA, unless the obesity itself is caused by an underlying physiological condition. The Ninth Circuit further noted that Plaintiff did not produce any evidence suggesting that his obesity was caused by an underlying physiological condition. However, rather than simply agree with the four other circuit courts that Plaintiff did not have a protected disability as a matter of law, the Ninth Circuit punted on the issue, holding that it need not decide whether Plaintiff’s obesity was a protected disability. [The EEOC submitted an amicus brief in the case, urging the court to hold (contrary to the EEOC’s own regulations and interpretive guidance) that obesity is a protected disability because of its physiological effects on the body.] The Court held that regardless of whether or not Plaintiff’s obesity was a disability (or whether the effects of his obesity on his knees and ability to function was a disability), there was no evidence that Medtronic terminated him because of this. Medtronic had produced evidence that Plaintiff admitted falsifying his reports of completed work and that this is the only reason he was fired. Plaintiff produced no evidence that Medtronic treated other similarly situated (but non-obese) employees differently, and Medtronic convincingly explained that it was absurd to suggest that it fired Plaintiff for being obese, given that Medtronic had hired and employed Plaintiff for 10 years, all the while aware of his obesity. If Medtronic had some motive to discriminate against obese people, presumably it would not have hired Plaintiff in the first place or would have fired him much earlier. For these reasons, the Court upheld the judgment in favor of Medtronic.
While a good result, today’s Ninth Circuit decision leaves the door open for Plaintiffs’ attorneys in states covered by the Ninth Circuit (including California) to continue arguing that obesity is a protected disability under the ADA and/or applicable state law. That is unfortunate, given that it is very costly to litigate an employment discrimination case through summary judgment (and appeal) and the employer almost never can recover the attorneys’ fees and costs it incurs on this type of litigation. Meanwhile, employees have zero disincentive to sue because they get legal representation on a contingency fee basis (meaning they only pay their lawyer if they obtain a settlement or win the case) and, therefore, have little to lose and much to gain. Pun intended.