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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a District Court’s ruling in favor of employer Medtronic, Inc. in a lawsuit alleging Medtronic unlawfully terminated employee Jose Valtierra’s employment because he was morbidly obese, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  In doing so, the Court declined to decide whether morbid obesity is a disability, leaving this issue unsettled in the Ninth Circuit.

Valtierra alleged that Medtronic terminated his employment because he was morbidly obese.  In its Motion for Summary Judgment, Medtronic argued Valtierra’s employment was terminated for falsifying records to show he completed assignments when in fact he had not. It was undisputed that Valtierra admitted to Medtronic that he did not complete the assignments even though he entered that they were complete in the computer system.

The ADA defines “disability” as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A).  The EEOC’s guidance on what constitutes an “impairment” states, in relevant part, “The definition of the term “impairment” does not include physical characteristics such as eye color, hair color, lefthandedness or height, weight or muscle tone that are within “normal” range and are not the result of a physiological disorder.”

The District Court for the District of Arizona granted summary judgment in favor of Medtronic on the ground that morbid obesity is not a physical impairment and could not constitute a disability under the ADA unless it was caused by an underlying physiological condition.  The District Court found that Valtierra could not identify an underlying physiological condition, and thus, could not establish disability discrimination under the ADA.

The District Court’s ruling was in line with the Eighth, Sixth, and Second Circuits, who have all found that morbid obesity is not, by itself, a disability under the ADA.  Since the District Court’s ruling, the Seventh Circuit has reached a similar conclusion.  The EEOC filed an amicus brief in support of Valtierra, stating that the District Court and the above-mentioned Circuit Courts misinterpreted their regulations and guidance.

In the instant case, however, the Ninth Circuit avoided making a determination on the issue of whether morbid obesity is, by itself, a disability under the ADA.  Instead, the Court found that Valtierra did not show a causal relationship between his physical impairments and his termination because (1) he admitted that he entered the assignments as complete in the system when he had not finished the work; and (2) in the over 10 years he worked for Medtronic, he always weighed in excess of 300 pounds.  Thus, the Court found that there was no basis for finding that Medtronic terminated Valtierra’s employment for any reason other than his falsification of records to show he completed his work when he did not.

As the law on this issue continues to be unsettled, it remains a good idea to contact employment counsel when in doubt as these issues arise.