Kentucky Court of Appeals Rules That Morbid Obesity Is a Disability in Pennington v. Wagner’s Pharmacy, Inc.

Charles W. Miller & Associates

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Kentucky law, private employers with at least 15 employees cannot discriminate against employees with a disability. That means that they cannot refuse to hire, promote, or train otherwise qualified disabled employees, nor can they deny them pay or benefits, or terminate their employment just because of the disability. Qualified disabled employees must receive reasonable accommodation for their conditions unless the accommodation would impose “undue hardship.” A reasonable accommodation is any adjustment or modification needed for the employee to do his/her job. It usually becomes an undue hardship when the cost is too great for the organization to bear. However, most accommodations are inexpensive and easy to implement. The question is what qualifies as “disabled.” While certain physical and mental disabilities are widely accepted, others are more controversial. For instance, many debate whether obesity can be considered a disability, even after the American Medical Association labeled it a disease. Is obesity a condition that the person brought on through a lack of self-control, or a true illness? The Kentucky Court of Appeals came down on the side of illness, and a disability, in Pennington v. Wagner’s Pharmacy, Inc.

In Pennington, Melissa Pennington worked for 10 years as a food truck operator for Wagner’s Pharmacy. Pennington was five feet, four inches and weighed 425 pounds. In 2007, Pennington went to the manager’s office on her off-day to collect her paycheck. Pennington was not at her “best” appearance due to moving into a new residence. Soon after, the manager directed Pennington’s supervisor to fire her for her appearance. However, Pennington’s coworkers claimed that Pennington was fired because she was “overweight and dirty.”

Pennington filed a discrimination lawsuit against Wagner’s Pharmacy, alleging that she was wrongfully terminated because she was morbidly obese and thus disabled. Wagner’s successfully sought summary judgment at the trial court level, and Pennington appealed. The Kentucky Court of Appeals looked at whether Pennington had satisfied a prima facie case for discrimination: whether she had a disability as the term was used under the statute (Kentucky Civil Rights Act); whether she was otherwise qualified for the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and whether she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability.

While the trial court held that Pennington was not disabled — because her condition did not meet the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition (that a disability was caused by a “physiological disorder”) — the Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court of Appeals gave special consideration to the trial court testimony of a doctor who said that obesity was caused by a “cluster of often unknown physiological abnormalities,” and that obesity limited Pennington’s major life activities. The Court of Appeals found that on this basis, Pennington’s obesity was a disability, and she should have a jury decide whether she was discriminated against.

This represents a victory for Kentuckians suffering from obesity who have suffered mistreatment at work despite being good at their jobs. For too long, obesity has been treated lightly, but maybe rulings like the Kentucky Court of Appeals’ represents a trend toward taking it seriously as a disease. Those who have been harassed or terminated for being disabled can contact a Kentucky employment law attorney to represent them in a discrimination claim.

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