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Eighth Circuit Says Effects of Obesity on Kidney Functions Not FMLA Serious Health Condition

    Client Alerts
  • April 24, 2015
Federal courts rarely hear litigation over the question of whether an employee’s medical condition rises to the level of a Serious Health Condition (SHC) under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The bar for demonstrating a SHC is considerably lower than that for an ADA disability. DOL defines the term as including any illness, injury, impairment or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient treatment or continuing treatment by a health care provider.

Earlier this month, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that physical conditions associated with obesity did not qualify as a SHC. In Dalton v. ManorCare of W. Des Moines IA, LLC, the plaintiff was a nurse who began suffering unexplained weight gain. As a result of her weight, her physician diagnosed her with Stage One Chronic Kidney Disease. She had received a series of disciplinary warnings for poor work performance, and was eventually terminated on this basis. She filed suit under the FMLA, claiming that the termination was actually motivated by her health problems, and related absences from work.

The Eighth Circuit never reached the question of actual motivation for the termination decision. Even assuming that the plaintiff’s version of events was accurate, the court found that her medical condition did not meet the definition of a SHC. In her pleadings, the plaintiff identified the chronic kidney disease as the specific medical condition for purposes of FMLA qualification. The Eighth Circuit noted her doctor’s testimony that this diagnosis indicated that her kidneys were working harder as a result of the obesity, not that her kidney functions themselves were impaired.

On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that her obesity itself was a SHC, but the court noted that this issue was not raised in her original pleadings. The Eighth Circuit also noted the absence of DOL rules declaring that obesity itself, without any associated chronic medical condition constitutes a SHC. As a result, the court affirmed a grant of summary judgment for the employer.

Employers should exercise caution when interpreting this decision. The bar for demonstrating a SHC remains low, and the unusual diagnosis associated with her kidney issues would not apply in most circumstances. Also, the plaintiff’s claim appears to have been doomed by her failure to better plead specific medical problems associated with her weight gain. A more careful complaint could have included other diagnoses, or a chronic condition that resulted in the weight gain. Finally, federal courts are divided over whether morbid obesity itself is a disability under the ADA, giving plaintiffs another possible avenue for legal relief. That said, employers faced with FMLA claims should carefully examine the claimed medical basis for leave eligibility to determine if these reasons fall under the statute’s coverage.