Ninth Circuit Dodges the Question of Whether Morbid Obesity is an “Impairment” Under the ADA; EEOC Says Yes
On August 20, 2019, the Ninth Circuit dodged answering the question of whether morbid obesity is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Valtierra v. Medtronic Inc., No. 17-15282, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, but came short of joining the Second, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits in explicitly holding that obesity cannot constitute a disability under applicable EEOC regulations unless there is evidence that the obesity is caused by an underlying physiological condition.
Jose Valtierra was employed as a facility maintenance technician for Medtronic. In his position, Valtierra was responsible for repairing and maintaining manufacturing equipment. At all times during his employment, Valtierra was morbidly obese. His supervisor noticed that Valtierra was having difficulty walking and using the stairs. Concerned about whether Valtierra was able to perform his job functions, his supervisor reviewed the company’s computer systems to verify whether Valtierra had been completing his assignments. The company’s computer system reflected that Valtierra had completed 12 assignments even though he was on vacation. When confronted about the issue, Valtierra admitted that he had not performed the work, but instead intended to do so when he returned from vacation. Medtronic terminated Valtierra’s employment for falsification of records and Valtierra filed suit, claiming that he was unlawfully terminated because of his alleged disability, obesity, in violation of the ADA.
The District Court granted summary judgment to Medtronic, finding that pursuant to the applicable EEOC regulations, “standing alone,” obesity is not a disability under the ADA unless it is caused by an underlying physiological condition. Valtierra appealed.
The EEOC submitted an amicus brief in support of Valtierra, unequivocally asserting, “[t]here can be no question that the Commission’s view that morbid obesity is an ‘impairment’ is ‘permitted’ by the terms of the ADA.” The EEOC noted that the 2008 amendments to the ADA were intended to expand the definition of disability “in favor of broad coverage,” highlighting that several federal agencies, including the FDA, IRS, and SSA, have defined obesity as a disease. It also relied upon Valtierra’s medical records, which showed that he had a number of medical issues which are often associated with obesity, including insulin resistance, bilateral leg edema, cholesterol issues, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and joint pain. He also experienced severe pain in his right knee that was inoperable due to his obesity and which made it difficult for him to walk. As a result, the EEOC argued that morbid obesity is a physiological disorder that affects various body systems.
Further, the EEOC argued that a plaintiff need not show the cause of his medical disorder or condition so long as s/he can establish that the disorder or condition is “physiological” in nature and “affects one or more body systems.
Finally, the EEOC argued that, separately, Valtierra’s chronic knee condition was an “impairment” under the ADA and that there was sufficient evidence in the record to support a conclusion that this impairment substantially limited his major life activity of walking.
In its relatively brief opinion, the Ninth Circuit noted there was no dispute that if (emphasis on “if”) Valtierra’s condition constituted an “impairment” under the ADA, it sufficiently limited his life activities such that he would be considered disabled for purposes of the ADA. However, the Ninth Circuit never actually decided whether obesity is an “impairment” for purposes of the ADA. Rather, the Ninth Circuit punted on the issue because “even assuming that [morbid obesity] itself is an impairment, or that Valtierra suffered from a disabling knee condition that the district court could have considered,” there was no basis for concluding Valtierra was terminated for any reason other than his falsification of records.
This is certainly not the last time we will hear from the courts and the EEOC on this issue. For employers, however, the issue of whether obesity itself qualifies as a disability may be practically irrelevant. To the extent an employee with morbid obesity has a separate medical disorder or condition which constitutes an impairment under the ADA and substantially limits a major life activity (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.), that employee may qualify as disabled under the ADA (regardless of obesity).