Takeaway: The employer did not discriminate in violation of state law against a former employee based on a perceived disability, because the employee was able to perform job duties satisfactorily except when his weight, not a perceived disability, interfered with his ability to do so. But the former employee’s claim under a state law that specifically prohibits discrimination based on weight survived a motion for summary judgment.
A former employee’s state law claim that he was discriminated against based on a perceived disability pertaining to his weight failed, a federal district court decided. But the court allowed his claim of unlawful demotion based on his weight to proceed under a separate state law. The lawsuit was subsequently settled, according to Bloomberg.
The employee worked as a swing courier for Federal Express (FedEx), where he did not have a set route but worked where and as needed. The employee also did not have an assigned delivery vehicle; his vehicle varied depending upon his route.
The employee weighed approximately 450 pounds according to court papers, and because of his weight, could not buckle his seatbelt in some delivery vehicles. When this happened, FedEx reassigned him to warehouse work but paid him as a swing courier.
In January 2021, the employee requested a seatbelt extender so he could work any route, and submitted a reasonable accommodation request form to his supervisor, who forwarded the form to the corporate human capital management program.
FedEx denied the request, maintaining that original equipment seatbelt extenders were available only for some of the vehicles at issue, and company policy did not allow installation of aftermarket parts on company vehicles.
In March 2021, the supervisor and two other managers met with the employee and told him that because FedEx could not accommodate his request, the worker would be moved to a different position. The employee began working as a dangerous goods operator, working fewer hours for less pay.
Eight days later, the employee texted his supervisor and asked what needed to be done in order for him to drive again. The supervisor texted back: “So you’ll have to loose [sic] some weight.”
The employee subsequently resigned and sued FedEx, alleging violations of two Michigan state laws: the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA) and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA). FedEx, in turn, filed motions for summary judgment.
The employee alleged that FedEx discriminated against him under the PWDCRA based on a perceived disability. He said FedEx perceived his weight as a disability because the company told him he needed to complete an accommodation request after he asked for a seatbelt extender. Under the PWDCRA, employers may not discriminate against an individual because of a disability “that is unrelated to the individual’s ability to perform the duties of a particular job or position” or that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” which is defined as including, among other things, working.
The court denied the PWDCRA claim, finding that the employee’s weight did not prevent him from performing satisfactory work. The employee “could not demonstrate that FedEx regarded his weight as substantially limiting one or more of his major life activities or that FedEx considered his weight to be unrelated to his ability to perform the duties as a swing courier,” the court said.
The employee alleged that FedEx violated the ELCRA by demoting him because of his weight. Under the ELCRA, an employer may not “refuse to hire or recruit, discharge or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to employment, compensation, or a term, condition or privilege of employment, because of religion, race … weight or marital status.”
The employee asserted that his supervisor’s March 2021 text message was “direct evidence” of discrimination. The court disagreed, noting that the statement was made eight days after the employee’s demotion.
Nonetheless, the court also noted that FedEx said it demoted the employee because the company does not permit aftermarket parts on company vehicles, and original equipment seatbelt extenders are available for only some of the vehicles at issue.
The court found that the employee was correct that there were questions of fact “not only about the contents of FedEx’s policy regarding seatbelt extenders but also whether such a policy even exists,” and therefore denied FedEx’s motion for summary judgment on the ELCRA claim.
Trapp v. Federal Express Corp., E.D. Mich., No. 1:21-cv-11271 (Dec. 1, 2022).
D.M. Fera is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.