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September 12, 2006
LAW: Sixth Circuit Rejects EEOC's Weight Discrimination Theory
Few if any areas of the law are more in need of Congressional reform than our employment discrimination laws, which are invoked with monotonous regularity by people who have done any number of things to earn getting fired or passed over for promotion. Thankfully, some of the worst abuses can be curbed simply by having judges apply a little common sense. Consider today's opinion in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, No. 05-3218 (6th Cir. Sept. 12, 2006) (H/T Bashman).
The EEOC - which, last I checked, was part of the Bush Administration - brought an Americans with Disabilities Act case against a trucking company on behalf of one Stephen Grindle:
In August 1990, Stephen Grindle . . . was hired by the defendant, Watkins Motor Lines . . . , as a Driver/Dock Worker. Approximately 65% of his time was spent performing dock work including loading, unloading, and arranging freight. The job description for this position notes that the job involves climbing, kneeling, bending, stooping, balancing, reaching, and repeated heavy lifting.
Eventually, Grindle was sent to a doctor:
On June 26, 1996, Watkins ordered Grindle to see the industrial clinic doctor, Dr. Walter Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence found that Grindle had a limited range of motion and that he could duck and squat but he was short of breath after a few steps. Dr. Lawrence also noted that "[o]n physical examination, the most notable item is that the patient weighs 405 lbs." Dr. Lawrence concluded that, even though Grindle met Department of Transportation standards for truck drivers, he could not safely perform the requirements of his job.
The trucking company, not wanting to employ a guy who could not safely do his job, fired Grindle, and - of course - litigation ensued. The Sixth Circuit concluded that morbid obesity that has no physiological cause is not an "impairment" within the meaning of the ADA's proscription on firing qualified individuals with "a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual":
[I]t is clear that [in a prior decision] we did not intend to hold that any abnormal physical characteristic is a potential ADA impairment when we stated that "[the plaintiffs] have not alleged a status which is the result of a physiological condition or otherwise beyond the range of 'normal.'" Rather, we simply intended to emphasize that the plaintiffs' conditions were far from constituting an ADA impairment as, not only were the plaintiffs' conditions not physiologically caused, but they were not even abnormally obese. To interpret the above sentence any other way would suggest that we held that any physical abnormality - for example, someone extremely tall or grossly short - may be ADA impairment. We decline to extend ADA protection to all "abnormal" (whatever that term may mean) physical characteristics. To do so "would make the central purpose of the statutes, to protect the disabled, incidental to the operation of the 'regarded as' prong, which would become a catch-all cause of action for discrimination based on appearance, size, and any number of other things far removed from the reasons the statutes were passed."
(Citations omitted). The court did, however, leave open the possibility that future claimants could come up with a theory under which their morbid obesity - or, even, according to one concurring judge, all morbid obesity - might be considered a disability covered by the ADA.
Of course, for different people, there may indeed be reasonable differences in the degree to which they are responsible for their weight problems. But there's really no evidence that Congress ever intended to make a federal case out of firing people who are too fat to do their jobs. The ADA has spawned endless litigation over what constitutes a disability (the paradigmatic case of office workers in wheelchairs is by far the exception rather than the rule in ADA litigation), often extending to alleged mental deficiencies that amount to people who can't get their jobs done or control their behavior. And as with the case of teachers who can't pass a simple test, and Exxon's decision after the Exxon Valdez case to stop hiring drunks as ship captains, what is needed at the time of filing of all these cases is a much more rigorous showing by the plaintiff that the employer did not have a plausible, job-related reason for an adverse employment action, a test these kinds of suits should have failed at the very outset.