Creative Destruction

September 12, 2006

Sixth Circuit Court Rules That Obesity Is Not Covered Under ADA

Filed under: Disability Issues,Fat and fat acceptance — Ampersand @ 11:19 pm

From the Disability Law Blog (thanks to Blue for emailing me the link!):

This morning, the Sixth Circuit issued its decision in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc. The EEOC had brought suit on behalf of a worker who claimed he had been fired because of his morbid obesity (he weighed up to 450 pounds). The Sixth Circuit held that the worker did not have a “disability” for purposes of the ADA, because he did not show that his obesity had a “physiological cause” and therefore qualified as a “physiological disorder.” Although the EEOC had shown that the worker’s weight was more than 100% greater than the norm (sufficient for a diagnosis of morbid obesity under the traditional definition), they failed to show that the weight was “the result of a physiological condition.”

This decision seems to me quite confused, though it’s a confusing area so I cut the court some slack. What does it mean to say that morbid obesity has a “physiological cause”? All of our behavior has some physiological cause, if only from hormones and brain activity. And there’s lots of reason to believe that brain proteins that alter appetite and activity levels, not to mention genetics, are substantial contributors to morbid obesity. More broadly, every fact about our body is by definition physiological. And morbid obesity, being a condition of one’s physiology, is by definition a “physiological condition.”

So the problem can’t be that the worker’s morbid obesity had no “physiological cause” or was not a “physiological condition.” The problem has to be that he had no physiological “disorder.” But what does that mean? The theory of “disorder” can’t be a condition that has some identifiable organic etiology, or most “syndrome”-type conditions would be ruled out. We often just don’t know what the etiology of a particular condition is, even when doctors diagnose it, recognize that it calls for treatment, and treat it. For it to make any sense, I think “impairment” has to be defined medically — according to what are the conditions that are the basis for recognized medical (and psychological, since the statute includes both physical and mental impairments) diagnoses. On that score, morbid obesity that meets clinical criteria should always be an “impairment” — which doesn’t mean it will always be a “disability,” as the plaintiff will still have to show actual or perceived substantial limitation of a major life activity.

The Court’s decision can be read here (pdf link). I think they made the wrong decision, but maybe making the wrong decision is the right thing to do at this time. Basically, they argued that for an obese person to qualify for ADA protection, the obesity must have a “physiological cause.” But it’s a little tricky to support that interpretation based on the text of the ADA itself. The relevant section of the ADA reads:

Any physiological disorder, or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genito-urinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.

So the court is in the position of arguing that obesity has to be shown to be a physiological “disorder” and not a “condition” to qualify for ADA protection – even though the ADA’s own definition clearly includes physiological conditions. To see how finely they had to chop their arguments, consider this: Judge Gibbons, in her concurrence, concedes that a “literal” reading does not support the Court’s position, but argues that a missing comma which existed in an earlier piece of legislation the ADA took its language from should be the controlling authority.

I think that fat acceptance and disabled rights, while not identical, have significant areas of overlap – both literally, in the bodies of people who are both disabled and fat, and philosophically. In the end, both movements are about the idea that there is no one correct form that all human beings are obliged to fit into, or to work to become; and that all human beings, regardless of how their bodies differ from the average, are deserving of equal dignity and equal rights.

Perhaps the biggest difference between anti-disabled bigotry and anti-fat bigotry is that disabled people are not seen as responsible for their “condition,” whereas fat people are by and large blamed for being fat. I think this underlying prejudice is the unstated logic driving the Sixth Circuit’s decision. While obese people who can prove that their obesity is not their fault may be covered by the ADA, obese people in general are to blame, and thus must not be covered by the ADA.

So why did I say “but maybe making the wrong decision is the right thing to do at this time”? Because I think that when Congress passed the ADA, they probably didn’t intend for it to apply to most “morbidly obese” people, because the Representatives and Senators probably share the idea that most obese people have only themselves to blame and can reasonably be discriminated against by employers. I worry that if the Courts found that the ADA covered all “morbidly obese” people, the result would be a backlash against the ADA and the Courts, at a time when the ADA itself is still very controversial and not totally secure. Probably more work needs to be done to change the “hearts and minds” of the American population about obesity; court victories based on the ADA might not be sustainable until the fat acceptance movement has achieved at least a small degree of mainstream acceptance.

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1 Comment »

  1. Judge Gibbons, in her concurrence, concedes that a “literal” reading does not support the Court’s position, but argues that a missing comma which existed in an earlier piece of legislation the ADA took its language from should be the controlling authority.

    So the decision hung on the placement of a comma? I keep telling my students they should care about punctuation, but do they listen?

    Comment by Brutus — September 13, 2006 @ 12:25 am | Reply


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