Labor & Employment Law Daily Obese employee with torn ACL can’t advance ADA disability, Michigan weight bias claims
Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Obese employee with torn ACL can’t advance ADA disability, Michigan weight bias claims

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The employee’s inability to kneel—her only physical limitation—was not enough to meet the threshold requirement of proving she was disabled. Nor was there evidence of weight related comments or that she was treated differently because of her weight.

Although an employee set forth sufficient facts to substantiate her claim that Soave Enterprises served as her employer, subjecting it to liability under the ADA and state law, she failed to show that her ACL injury rendered her disabled under the ADA or that the defendant companies regarded her as disabled. Nor could she show that the defendants’ stated reason for her termination—an inability to perform her duties because of a knee injury—was pretextual, said a federal court in Michigan, granting summary judgment against her state-law claim of weight discrimination as well (Harrison v. Soave Enterprises, January 23, 2019, Parker, L.).

As the manager of a vehicle parts salvage yard maintained by Parts Galore, the employee was required to spot check five cars per day to ensure they were ready to be placed in the yard for customer use. Not only did she have to look under the hood, she also had to check under the vehicles.

Can’t kneel. Claiming she could not kneel, the employee, who weighed 300 pounds and suffered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), requested a mirror to help her inspect under the cars and Parts Galore’s regional manager authorized the purchase. Other than the inability to kneel, the employee stated that she did not have any physical limitations that would preclude her from performing her job. She claimed, however, that her ACL injury prevented her from walking long distances and on certain terrains. She was ultimately terminated, purportedly because her knee injury prevented her from doing her job.

Single employer? In addition to suing Parts Galore under the ADA and Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, the employee sued Soave Enterprises, claiming both were her employer. They argued, however, that she was employed not by them but by Ferrous Processing and Trading Company (FPT). Noting that the employee testified that FPT was her employer, the court pointed out that companies can be so intertwined that they constitute a single employer.

Here, the employee produced evidence indicating that Soave’s President of Highway Auto Equipment was her direct supervisor and he submitted the business plan to FPT to create Parts Galore; Parts Galore’s regional manager also served as her supervisor; FPT was a subsidiary of Soave; FPT’s website states its owned by Soave; and Parts Galore’s regional manager decided and carried out the employee’s termination during which Soave’s HR director was present. Given the shared management and supervision between Soave and FPT and Soave’s ownership of FPT, which owns Parts Galore, the court found Soave also served as the employee’s employer.

ADA disability discrimination. The employee argued that the defendants discriminated against her because of her disability, the ACL injury, refused to accommodate her, and terminated her due to her injury. Although she claimed that her ability to kneel was a physical limitation, the court pointed out that while a knee injury can certainly impede the ability to walk, her “‘alleged inability to perform certain tasks or functions on a repeated or prolonged basis is not enough, as a matter of law, for [her] to meet the threshold requirement of proving that [she] is ‘disabled.’” Because she failed to establish she was disabled, the employee was not entitled to relief under the ADA based on disability discrimination.

Not regarded as disabled. And while the employee also asserted a “regarded as” disabled claim, which she based on the fact that the defendants granted her request for a mirror, that act alone, said the court, did not per se establish they regarded her as disabled. Further, the court pointed out, its conclusion that she was not disabled extinguished any potential failure-to-accommodate claim. But even assuming she was disabled, this claim would still fail because there was no evidence the defendants refused a requested accommodation.

Weight discrimination. Turning to her ELCRA weight discrimination claim, the court found the employee demonstrated she belonged to a protected class and she was terminated from her employment. Further, she performed her managerial duties for some years but eventually needed an accommodation to perform those duties. The fact that the defendants provided her with a mirror showed she was hindered from performing the full extent of her duties without an accommodation. Regardless, the court recognized the employee as qualified and inferred that her termination was based, at least in part, on her weight.

No evidence of pretext. Nonetheless, her claim failed because she could not show that the defendants’ stated reason for her termination—an inability to perform her duties because of her knee injury—was pretextual. The employee admitted that she was never treated differently by any supervisor, never heard any supervisor refer to her weight, and had no other evidence she was terminated because of her weight, observed the court, finding she failed to establish a claim of weight discrimination in violation of the ELCRA.

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