Insight

Texas Supreme Court Holds Morbid Obesity, Unconnected to Physiological Disorder or Condition, Is Not a Disability

Texas Employment Law Update

Russell D. Cawyer

Russell D. Cawyer

July 17, 2023 05:11 PM

Texas Supreme Court Holds Morbid Obesity, Unconnected to Physiological Disorder or Condition, Is Not a Disability

By Russell Cawyer on July 5, 2023

Posted in Case Summaries, Disability, Discrimination

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 anti-discrimination laws. The case arose following the termination of a medical resident who was employed by 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.

The opinions in Texas Tech Health Sciences Ctr. v. Niehay are available here (Majority, Concurring & Dissenting)

Print:

Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn

Trending Articles

Presenting The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to present The Best Lawyers in Australia for 2025, marking the 17th consecutive year of Best Lawyers awards in Australia.

Australia flag over outline of country

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power


by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

Announcing The Best Lawyers in New Zealand™ 2025 Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is announcing the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in New Zealand for 2025, including individual Best Lawyers and "Lawyer of the Year" awards.

New Zealand flag over image of country outline

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Japan™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

For a milestone 15th edition, Best Lawyers is proud to announce The Best Lawyers in Japan.

Japan flag over outline of country

The Best Lawyers in Singapore™ 2025 Edition


by Best Lawyers

For 2025, Best Lawyers presents the most esteemed awards for lawyers and law firms in Singapore.

Singapore flag over outline of country

Announcing the 16th Edition of the Best Lawyers in Germany Rankings


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers announces the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in Germany™, featuring a unique set of rankings that highlights Germany's top legal talent.

German flag in front of country's outline

How Much Is a Lawyer Consultation Fee?


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers breaks down the key differences between consultation and retainer fees when hiring an attorney, a crucial first step in the legal process.

Client consulting with lawyer wearing a suit

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers’ Compensation Legal Guide


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers' Compensation Legal Guide provides exclusive access to all Best Lawyers awards in related practice areas. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Illustration of several men and women in shades of orange and teal

Things to Do Before a Car Accident Happens to You


by Ellie Shaffer

In a car accident, certain things are beyond the point of no return, while some are well within an individual's control. Here's how to stay legally prepared.

Car dashcam recording street ahead

Combating Nuclear Verdicts: Empirically Supported Strategies to Deflate the Effects of Anchoring Bias


by Sloan L. Abernathy

Sometimes a verdict can be the difference between amicability and nuclear level developments. But what is anchoring bias and how can strategy combat this?

Lawyer speaking in courtroom with crowd and judge in the foreground

The Push and Pitfalls of New York’s Attempt to Expand Wrongful Death Recovery


by Elizabeth M. Midgley and V. Christopher Potenza

The New York State Legislature recently went about updating certain wrongful death provisions and how they can be carried out in the future. Here's the latest.

Red tape blocking off a section of street

Attacked From All Sides: What Is Happening in the World of Restrictive Covenants?


by Christine Bestor Townsend

One employment lawyer explains how companies can navigate challenges of federal and state governmental scrutiny on restrictive covenant agreements.

Illustration of two men pulling on string with blue door between them

6 Ways a Lawyer Can Help You With Your Medical Malpractice Claim


by Adam Malone

If you believe you have a medical malpractice claim, contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. Read on to learn how they can help with your claim.

Doctor in white lab coat showing x-ray to patient in blue scrubs

Georgia Proposes Law Requiring Parental Consent for Minors on Social Media


by Gregory Sirico

With data collection on the rise, Georgia lawmakers are currently petitioning for Senate Bill 351, which would require a user's age before social media use.

Teenager with hood on using phone as notifications pop up

Colorado Attorney General Calls For Cannabis Reclassification


by Gregory Sirico

In this article, Best Lawyers highlights a recent call to action by the Colorado state attorney general, requesting a full drug reclassification of cannabis.

Cannabis buds sitting on a checkerboard tabletop