The EEOC’s recent lawsuit – in which the agency alleges a New Orleans non-profit’s dismissal of Lisa Harrison, an obese employee, violated the ADA – has received widespread news coverage. But this is not the first time the EEOC has attempted to extend ADA coverage beyond its traditional bounds to include protection against weight discrimination.
In 2002, the EEOC sued Watkins Motor Lines on similar facts, claiming Watkins fired employee Stephen Grindle because of his obesity and because Watkins perceived Mr. Grindle as substantially limited in major life activities, including walking. In that case, the Sixth Circuit rejected the EEOC’s theory that obesity was a protected disability. Since the Watkins decision, Congress has passed the ADAAA, which significantly expands the definition of “disability” under the ADA. But did the ADAAA overrule Watkins and change the law such that obesity is now a protected disability? To answer this question, we must first look to the court’s analysis in Watkins.
The Watkins court concluded that obesity, even morbid obesity, does not constitute a physical impairment unless it is the result of a physiological disorder or condition. The court looked to the EEOC regulation’s definition of “impairment,” under which a condition was an “impairment” only if it was a “physiological disorder or condition, any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss. . . .” Because Mr. Grindle, who weighed 405 pounds, knew of no physiological or psychological cause for his weight, he was not protected. Additionally, because Mr. Grindle could not show he suffered from an ADA impairment, the court concluded it was not necessary to address whether Watkins perceived him as substantially limited in any major life activities.
In its recent complaint on behalf of Ms. Harrison’s estate (she died before the lawsuit was filed), the EEOC contends the non-profit fired Ms. Harrison because of her obesity and because it perceived Ms. Harrison as substantially limited in major life activities, including walking. The complaint does not allege any physiological cause for Ms. Harrison’s weight. Thus, the Watkins analysis would appear to apply unless the ADAAA has overruled it. Although the EEOC’s ADAAA regulations do broaden the definitions of “major life activities” and “substantially limits,” neither the ADAAA nor the EEOC regulations have changed the pertinent provision interpreted by the Watkins court, the definition of “impairment.” To be an “impairment,” the condition must still be a “physiological disorder or condition, any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss. . . .” If, as in Watkins, there is no “impairment,” there should be no need to address whether the non-profit perceived Ms. Harrison as substantially limited in any major life activities. Thus, it will be interesting to see if the EEOC is bringing this case under an ADAAA theory, or whether the case is factually distinguishable from Watkins.
We will continue to monitor this case as well as all developments under the ADA and ADAAA.