The employee, who weighed over 300 pounds during the 10 years he worked for the company, admitted to falsifying work records to show he had completed work assignments he had not actually completed.
Skirting the issue of whether morbid obesity is itself an impairment under the ADA, the Ninth Circuit explained that even assuming it is, an employee failed to show he was terminated because of his alleged impairments. Affirming the grant of summary judgment against his ADA claim, the appeals court held there was no basis for concluding he was fired for anything other than, as his employer claimed, falsifying work records (Valtierra v. Medtronic Inc., August 20, 2019, Schroeder, M.).
As a facility maintenance tech, the employee was responsible for repairing and maintaining the company’s manufacturing equipment. He received his job assignments through a computer program that kept track of the work needed to keep the equipment in good condition.
Morbidly obese. At the time he was hired in 2004, the employee, who was morbidly obese, weighed over 300 pounds and by 2014, his weight had increased to over 370 pounds. In late 2013, he took time off due to joint pain associated with his weight and returned to work in December without medical restrictions.
Falsified records. In May 2014, his supervisor noticed that he was having difficulty walking. Concerned, he checked the computer system to see if the employee had completed his assignments. Although the employee had already left on vacation, the computer showed he had completed 12 assignments that should have taken significantly more time to complete.
Fired. When confronted with these discrepancies, the employee admitted he had not actually completed all the work but instead claimed he intended to complete the work when he returned. He was subsequently terminated.
Lower court proceedings. Suing under the ADA, the employee argued that he should not have been assigned so many tasks to complete in so little time, because his employer knew he required accommodations for his weight. Although he contended that he suffered from a disability within the meaning of the ADA and his termination constituted unlawful discrimination, the district court granted summary judgment to his employer, holding that obesity, no matter how great, is not a disability under the applicable EEOC regulations unless caused by an underlying physiological condition.
Sister circuits. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit noted that at the time of the district court’s decision, three circuits—the Second, Sixth, and Eighth—had reached a similar conclusion. The EEOC, on the other hand, argued that those courts had incorrectly analyzed its regulations and guidance. The parties appeared to agree that if the employee had a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA it sufficiently limited his activities so as to render him disabled and thus the question was whether he had such an impairment.
EEOC position. The EEOC, observed the court, argued that morbid obesity is plainly physiological in its effects and that numerous federal agencies have categorized it as a disease. Further, it contended as amicus, the employee raised at least a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether his morbid obesity was an impairment because his medical records show that several of his bodily systems had been adversely affected.
No causal relationship. Finding it did not need to take a definitive stand on the issue, the appeals court found that even assuming it is an impairment, or that the employee suffered from a disabling knee condition that the court below could have considered, he was unable to show a causal relationship between these impairments and this termination. Not only did he admit he closed 12 maintenance assignments that he had not completed, he had worked for the company for more than 10 years before his discharge and had always weighed in excess of 300 pounds. Thus, there was no basis for concluding that he was terminated for any reason other than, as his employer claimed, he had falsified records to show he had completed work assignments.
Nor could he show that similarly situated employees were treated differently and thus the falsified records were pretext for discrimination based on his weight. While there was some evidence suggesting that two other employees closed out work assignments without completing them, there was no evidence that the company was aware of this misconduct and thus it could not have treated the employee differently from those employees.
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