Is it proper to discharge an employee whose morbid obesity makes it impossible for him to perform his job? Or is obesity a "disability" that must be accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act? The EEOC weighed in on these questions in its new complaint against BAE Systems, Inc. [pdf].
According to the EEOC complaint, BAE terminated material handler Ronald Kratz in 2009 because he was morbidly obese. Though he had been with the company since 1994 and received very good performance ratings in 2008 and 2009, the complaint alleges that BAE "reached the conclusion that he could no longer perform his job duties because of his weight." EEOC asserts that terminating Mr. Kratz was an unlawful employment practice because morbid obesity is a disability. The complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief imposing new policies, practices, and programs on BAE.
The EEOC appears to be testing the limits of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 [pdf]. While this law directs courts to interpret the term "disability" more broadly so that more people are covered, it is not yet clear that it must be so broadly defined that obesity is a disability. Courts have historically been reluctant to accept disability claims based on obesity. The Sixth Circuit's decision in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2006), for example, concludes that morbid obesity is not a disability unless it is the result of a physiological disorder. We'll watch the case as it develops.