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Ninth Circuit Avoids Obesity as Disability Issue But Upholds Discharge

by D. Gregory Valenza | | August 21, 2019

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Valtierra v. Medtronic, Inc. is refreshingly straightforward.  That’s because the Court did not address an issue that has been litigated since the ADA’s passage: is morbid obesity a disability? Most courts have said “no,” unless an underlying disability is the cause of the obesity.  But the EEOC argued in this case that Valtierra’s 370 lb weight qualified because it was a physiological impairment that was substantially limiting of one or more major life activities, under the ADA. The EEOC argued that those courts that have held morbid obesity is not an “impairment,” and therefore not a disability, have read the EEOC’s guidelines wrong.  That question remains unresolved in the 9th Circuit.  If you’re interested, the court collected these cases that herd obesity is not an impairment:

Morriss v. BNSF Ry. Co., 817 F.3d 1104 (8th Cir. 2016); EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, 463 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2006); Francis v. City of Meriden, 129 F.3d 281 (2d Cir. 1997); Richardson v. Chicago Transit Auth., 926 F.3d 881 (7th Cir. 2019).

The straightforward part is the Court’s determination that Valtierra’s lawsuit had no merit even if he had a disability. That is because the undisputed facts established the company discharged him for falsifying his work records.  He was given 12 assignments. He “cleared’ them in the company’s automated system before taking vacation. But he hadn’t really completed them.  When he was confronted, Valtierra argued that he “intended” to complete the jobs when he returned from vacation. He also argued he shouldn’t have been given so much work because he had a disability. 

The Court rejected those arguments because 

even assuming that it is such an impairment, or that Valtierra suffered from a disabling knee condition that the district court could have considered, he would have to show some causal relationship between these impairments and his termination. See Hutton v. Elf Atochem N. Am., Inc., 273 F.3d 884, 891 (9th Cir. 2001) (a plaintiff must show he suffered adverse employment action “because of” his disability to succeed on an ADA discrimination claim). He is unable to do so.

Valtierra admits he closed twelve maintenance assignments as having been completed when he had not done the work. In addition, he had worked for Medtronic for more than ten years and had always weighed in excess of 300 pounds. There is no basis for concluding that he was terminated for any reason other than Medtronic’s stated ground that he falsified records to show he had completed work assignments.

Valtierra was unable to show the court sufficient evidence that the company singled him out for termination by letting other employees falsify job records while enforcing its rule against him. So, the termination was unrelated to his condition, disability or not.  

Employers that enforce policies consistently and apply termination standards without regard to disability generally do better in discrimination cases. However, disability discrimination cases are more tricky when the reason for termination is related to the disability itself (such as termination for errors related to an impairment). In those cases, the efforts to accommodate may come into play.  In this case, however, the employee’s disability had nothing to do with the employee’s decision to falsify work records. 

This case is Valtierra v. Medtronic, Inc. and the decision is here. 

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