September 16, 2019

September 16, 2019

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Ninth Circuit Punts On Whether Obesity Is A Disability Under the ADA

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has sidestepped the issue of whether obesity is an actionable “impairment” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s a question that has been in the spotlight recently, after the Seventh Circuit agreed with the Second, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits in holding that obesity is not an actionable impairment under the ADA unless it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition.

Rather than “take a definitive stand” on the issue, the Ninth Circuit decided the case before it on causation grounds. In Valtierra v. Medtronic, Inc., the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer. The plaintiff, a former maintenance technician, weighed more than 300 pounds at the time of his hiring, and weighed more than 370 pounds when his employment ended.

The plaintiff was terminated by his employer when it was discovered that he had intentionally falsified maintenance records to show that he had completed certain maintenance tasks prior to leaving on vacation. The plaintiff admitted that he had not actually completed the tasks, but said that he planned to do so when he returned from vacation. The plaintiff alleged that his obesity qualified as a disability under the ADA, and that his termination was the result of discrimination.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, holding that “obesity, no matter how great, cannot constitute a disability under the applicable EEOC regulations unless the obesity is caused by an underlying physiological condition.” According to the district court, the plaintiff could not make the showing, and granted summary judgment.

The Ninth Circuit, on the other hand, chose not to confront the question of whether obesity in and of itself qualifies as an actionable “impairment” under the ADA, as its four sister circuits have. Instead, the court determined that the plaintiff had failed to show a causal relationship between his obesity (or his “disabling knee condition”) and his termination. The plaintiff admitted that he had not completed the maintenance tasks, and he had already been employed for more than 10 years, always weighing in excess of 300 pounds. Thus, according to the Ninth Circuit, there was no basis to conclude he was terminated for any reason other than the falsified maintenance records.

Employers in the Ninth Circuit defending an ADA claim relating to an employee’s obesity will have to wait for a “definitive stand” on whether obesity alone qualifies as an impairment under the ADA. That said, the Valtierra case serves as a helpful reminder that ADA claims require evidence of a causal relationship between an adverse employment action and a purported disability.

© 2019 BARNES & THORNBURG LLP

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Peter J. Wozniak Barnes Thornburg Chicago  Labor Employment
Partner

Pete Wozniak is a vigorous advocate who strives to help his clients navigate issues that can be fraught with challenges as painlessly and efficiently as possible. He is a candid and personable counselor, offering his clients direct advice by leveraging his deep experience performing a broad range of outcome critical functions for complex labor and employment matters.

Pete represents clients across a number of industries, including transportation and logistics, restaurants, retail, manufacturing, and temporary staffing. Handling a number of high profile matters, he identifies the...

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Mark Wallin, Attorney, BT, Chicago, Labor Employment
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In order to provide the best counsel, Mark Wallin believes it is his role to understand his clients’ business needs so he can help them determine what resolution will provide the most benefit. His keen ability to understand his clients’ practical concerns allows him to advise on the best path to successfully resolve issues – whether through traditional litigation or negotiated resolution.

In the course of his practice, Mark has focused on providing the highest-level of service to his clients and building long-term relationships. Specifically, he defends employers in a wide range of employment matters including wage and hour class and collective actions, as well as complex, multi-plaintiff and single plaintiff employment discrimination claims brought not only by private plaintiffs but also initiated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Mark has successfully represented companies of virtually all sizes, litigating matters across multiple areas of the law, from the pleading stage through appeal. He has also represented clients in arbitrations and before administrative bodies.

Mark vigilantly stays abreast of cases, laws, and trends that may impact his clients coming out of the courts, Congress and the state legislature, as well as the U.S. Department of Labor, the EEOC, and state regulatory agencies. He strives to keep a watchful eye on how labor and employment related laws are evolving so as to proactively advise clients.

In addition to his regular legal practice, Mark has undertaken several pro bono cases including trying criminal jury trials in state and federal court, and representing indigent plaintiffs in civil rights matters as part of the federal Trial Bar.

Mark began honing his litigation skill during law school when he interned at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois, where he handled both civil and criminal issues. He also interned for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which gave him a unique vantage of seeing the issues from the court’s perspective.

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