A recent ABA Law Journal article reported that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken up the case of a New Orleans woman fired from her job with a national non-profit organization for being morbidly obese. The EEOC asserts that the woman’s obesity did not prevent her from doing her job and that the employer’s conduct violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. Comments following the article hotly debate whether obesity is, in fact, a disability and whether the New Orleans woman has any right to ADA protection. However, the authors appear to be unaware that the EEOC tried to make the same argument once before and lost in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, 463 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2006).
In the Watkins case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that obesity is not a condition protected by the ADA unless it is caused by a physiological condition. Noting that the text of the ADA regulations defining a disability uses the word “physiological,” the court held that even morbid obesity was not a disability without a physiological cause. Thus, obesity caused by hypothyroidism or a genetic disorder is a protected disability while obesity due merely to an overabundant appetite is not. I did not find any other court of appeals disagreeing with the Sixth Circuit. Thus, it is unlikely the Supreme Court will be overturning Watkins anytime soon.
So what gives with the New Orleans case? One wonders whether the woman has a physiological condition that was simply omitted from the ABA Law Journal’s reporting? (Heaven forbid that a journalist, even for a law journal, could omit such a highly relevant fact!). Or is the EEOC bound and determined to persuade the new justices on the Supreme Court that plain old obesity is a condition deserving of protection?
What do you think? Should all obese people be entitled to the ADA’s protection whether or not their condition has an underlying physiological cause?