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Morbid Obesity Under the ADA

October 14, 2006
Related Topics: Disabilities, Featured Article
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Stephen Grindle was hired by Watkins Motor Lines as a driver/dockworker in 1990. Grindle's weight ranged from 340 to 450 pounds during the next five years, but he knew of no physiological or psychological cause for his weight.

In late 1995, he was injured at work. When he took a leave of absence to recover from those injuries, Watkins advised Grindle that any employee who remained on leave of absence more than 180 days would be terminated and that he must have a release from his doctors before he could return to work.

Grindle saw two doctors: his own, who never returned the "fitness to return to work" forms to Watkins, and a doctor selected by Watkins, who found that Grindle could not safely perform his job duties. Watkins placed him on a "safety hold," preventing him from returning to work pending release by doctors. When Grindle's leave exceeded 180 days, Watkins terminated him.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Watkins on behalf of Grindle under the Americans With Disabilities Act and appealed the dismissal of that lawsuit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati. The 6th Circuit affirmed the dismissal, finding that the EEOC failed to show that Watkins regarded Grindle's morbid obesity (more than 100 percent over an individual's normal weight) as a physiological impairment affecting his ability to do his job. Therefore, there was no ADA violation. EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, 6th Cir., No. 05-3218 (9/12/06).

Impact: Employers are advised that a physiological disorder or condition must exist in order for there to be a physical impairment under the ADA.

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