In a rare employment case issuing from the Texas Supreme Court, the Court held that morbid obesity, without some evidence that it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition, does not qualify as a disability under state ant-discrimination laws. The case arose following the termination of a medical resident who was employed by the Texas Tech University’s Health Sciences Center (the “Center”). Dr. Niehay was a medical resident in the Center’s Emergency Department. She brought suit under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”), claiming that her employer terminated her employment because it regarded her morbid obesity as a disability and then discriminated against her by terminating her employment because of her obesity.
Dr. Niehay is 5’9” tall and weighed as much as 400 pounds with a body mass index of 59.07. Morbid obesity is defined as having a body mass index in excess of 40. Likely as a result of her obesity, Dr. Niehay had performance issues that caused her co-workers to complain about her performance. After repeated complaints about her performance, attendance, professionalism and patient care, the employer terminated her from the residency program. She brought suit arguing disability discrimination on account of her morbid obesity..
On the record before the Texas Supreme Court, there was no evidence that Dr. Niehay’s obesity was caused by a physiological disorder or condition, or that staff of the employer regarded her obesity as being caused by such disorder or condition. The Court distinguished obesity that is caused by an underlying disorder or condition from obesity that is a physical characteristic caused by a person’s lifestyle choices or eating habits.
This case will have very limited impact on Texas employment litigation. As the Center noted in its Brief, and the Court repeated in its opinion, in the thirty years since the passage of the ADA, the Texas state courts have reported only three cases where morbid obesity was the disability. Thus, these cases are not frequently brought. Moreover, most employees bringing a disability discrimination claim based on morbid obesity should have little trouble presenting some evidence that the employee’s obesity is caused or contributed to by some underlying psychological disorder or condition.