Missouri District Court Rules that Plaintiff Who Was Terminated, Allegedly Due to Severe Obesity, Makes Plausible Argument for Disability Discrimination Under ADA

On April 24, 2014, Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Jr. of the Southeastern Division of the Eastern District of Missouri issued a Memorandum and Order denying the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss in the case Joseph Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Inc. In his initial complaint , Plaintiff Whittaker argued that his employment had been terminated by Car-Mart because of his severe obesity. In a later, amended complaint, he added an additional claim of retaliation, alleging that, following his termination and filing of the first Complaint, Car-Mart had contacted his prospective employer threatening to “terminate all business” with them if they hired Mr. Whittaker. Defendant moved to strike the amended complaint, arguing that it had been filed without leave of the court, but the Court determined that this claim was in error, so the only question at issue for the Judge was whether the Plaintiff had asserted a facially plausible claim of Discrimination under the ADA.

Most prominent in the Judge’s explanation is his conclusion that the Defendant’s arguments and legal analysis were essentially out of date. For example, Defendant argued “…that plaintiff’s alleged disability, severe obesity, is not an actual disability under the ADA unless it is related to an underlying physiological disorder or condition and that plaintiff fails to allege that his obesity is related to an underlying physiological disorder or condition.” The Judge noted that in its arguments Defendant failed to account for recent changes to the ADA and its interpretation, specifically the adoption of the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008, which explicitly states that “the definition of disability be construed ‘in favor of broad coverage individuals…to the maximum extent permitted’ by the law.” In addition, the Defendant’s legal analysis depended on the “unduly restrictive approach established by the Supreme Court in Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams,” which is precisely the approach that Congress rejected when it passed the ADAAA.

The Court noted that under the ADA, as amended by the ADAAA, a disability is defined as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; (C) being regarded as having such an impairment…” The Plaintiff argues that his severe obesity meets these conditions: first, while it did not limit his performance of all of his job responsibilities, his obesity did substantially limit him in some life activities, most notably walking; second, he showed that his employer did in fact regard him as having such impairment. Thus, the Court concluded, “Based on the substantial expansion of the ADA by the ADAAA, Defendant’s assertion that Plaintiff’s weight cannot be considered a disability is misplaced.”

Strictly speaking, the Court’s only conclusion was that Plaintiff could plausibly argue that he has a disability as (currently) defined by the ADA. However, considering what the definition actually says, the Plaintiff seems to be in a good position to advance his argument in future proceedings.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you because of a disability, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP