Claim of Discrimination Under the ADA Based on Morbid Obesity Dismissed

Claim of Discrimination Under the ADA Based on Morbid Obesity Dismissed

On August 20, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Valtierra v. Medtronic Inc. affirmed a summary judgment in favor of an employer where the plaintiff alleged he was fired because of his morbid obesity in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Ninth Circuit stated that it did not have to decide whether morbid obesity was an “impairment” protected by the ADA, as the plaintiff and the EEOC urged, but rather it affirmed the lower court’s judgment because the plaintiff was unable to show that he was fired “because of” his alleged disability. Mr. Valtierra was seriously overweight from the time of his hiring, and he had admitted to falsifying his work records to show he had completed work assignments when he had not. Accordingly, the plaintiff was unable to refute the employer’s legitimate business reason for firing him.

Numerous federal court decisions have held that obesity does not qualify as a disability under the ADA unless it has a physiological cause. A recent decision by a California appellate court noted, however, that while a plaintiff must show that her obesity has a physiological cause, developments in this area “suggest an easing of the burdens associated with satisfying the requirement under the ADA, and by extension the FEHA.” Although federal and California anti-discrimination laws do not include obesity as a protected characteristic without qualification, an employer must proceed cautiously when dealing with this situation, and be aware of local ordinances, such as that in effect in San Francisco, that prohibits discrimination in employment because of “height or weight.”