A Missouri federal judge ruled on Thursday that a former employee of a car dealership who has accused his employer of firing him for his weight has sufficiently supported his claim that he is disabled within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act, rejecting the dealership’s motion to dismiss the suit.
U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. said dealership chain America’s Car-Mart Inc. relied on outdated case law in arguing that former employee Joseph Whittaker’s “severe obesity” isn’t a disability under the ADA.
“Plaintiff sufficiently alleges a factual basis from which inferences supporting the legal conclusion that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA may be drawn,” Judge Limbaugh wrote.
Whittaker claimed in a suit initially filed in July that America’s Car-Mart violated the ADA and the Civil Rights Act by terminating his seven-year employment in November 2012.
The plaintiff said he could fully perform the “essential elements” of his job as the general manager of the Jefferson City, Mo., dealership without any special accommodations, but America’s Car-Mart canned him because of his weight. In an amended complaint filed in January, Whittaker added a claim that the dealership retaliated against him by threatening to terminate business with any entities that employ him.
America’s Car-Mart countered that Whittaker’s severe obesity is not an actual disability under the ADA unless it is related to an underlying physical disorder or condition and asserted that the plaintiff hasn’t alleged such facts.
Judge Limbaugh wrote in Thursday’s order that the defendant relied on case law construing disability based on the more restrictive approach applied before Congress passed the broader Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008. America’s Car-Mart’s reliance on a statement in U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines that obesity is only considered a disability in rare circumstances is likewise misguided as that language was omitted following the passage of the 2008 act, the judge said.
Whittaker has sufficiently pled a claim that his severe obesity is a disability within the meaning of the ADA, according to the order. The plaintiff alleged that the dealership regarded him as having a physical impairment and being substantially limited in one or more major life activities, including walking, the judge wrote.
Judge Limbaugh also denied America’s Car-Mart’s motion to strike the plaintiff’s amended complaint. The dealership alleged that Whittaker lodged the amended complaint without its consent and without leave of the court, but the judge found that the plaintiff clearly requested a time extension to file the new complaint.
Whittaker is seeking back pay with interest, damages for emotional distress and further awards to be determined at trial.
The EEOC has said that merely being overweight doesn’t usually amount to an impairment that would allow a worker to avail themselves of the law’s protection, but severe obesity — a body weight more than 100 percent more than the norm — could cross the threshold into “disability.”
In 2011, a federal judge in Louisiana ruled that under the EEOC’s guidelines, this kind of severe obesity could be considered a protected disability even if it isn’t caused by some kind of physiological disorder.
“According the EEOC guidelines to the ADA the appropriate deference, the court should recognize that severe obesity qualifies as a disability under the ADA and that there is no requirement to prove an underlying physiological basis,” said U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, refusing to toss an EEOC case against a nonprofit that fired a 527-pound woman.
Whittaker is represented by Michael L. Jackson.
America’s Car-Mart is represented by Kevin D. Case and Ryan S. VanFleet of Case Linden PC.
The case is Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Inc., case No. 1:13-cv-00108, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.