Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

6th Circuit Limits ADA Claim in Weighty Decision

Denying a 405 pound dock worker's disability claim, the 6th Circuit holds that morbid obesity (“body weight more than 100% over the norm”), not caused by a physiological disorder, is not an impairment under the ADA. Since it is not an impairment, it can not be relied on to establish a "perceived as" claim. EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines (6th Cir. 9/12/06) [pdf].

In a concurring opinion, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons finds the holding in part mandated by an errant comma when the EEOC adopted a prior regulation under the Rehabilitation Act:

The difference between the two regulations is slight but important. As noted above, § 1630.2 has a comma separating disorder and condition, whereas § 104.3 does not. This means that under the definition the agency intended to adopt, “physiological” modifies both “disorder” and “condition” rather than just “disorder.” In addition to this statement that the EEOC was adopting the definition of § 104.3, the actual definition given by the agency in the Federal Register does not contain the extraneous comma. See 56 Fed. Reg. at 35740-41. Finally, the definition of physical impairment for the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, which is often interpreted coextensively with the ADA, likewise does not contain the extra comma. See 45 C.F.R. § 84.3(j) (2). Thus, the best reading of § 1630.2 is that the comma following “disorder” is scrivener’s error, meaning that the statute requires a “physiological disorder or condition” in order for a “physical impairment” to exist under the ADA.

Judge Gibbons also notes that it is possible that:

morbid obesity is a disorder that by its very nature has a physiological cause. This would preclude the need 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.

Bottom line, if you are attempting to make a disability claim based on morbid obesity -- it is critical it be tied to a physiological cause, at least in the 6th Circuit.


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