January 11, 2014

Obesity, pregnancy and anti-discrimination laws

Posted in Employment Law by Gene Killian |

As I write this, it’s January 2014, and my gym this morning was packed with resolutions. In a few weeks, most of them will likely be gone, although the proliferation of diet advertisements (Weight Watchers, NutriSystems, Slim-Fast, etc. etc.) will never go away. There’s big money involved. Naturally, for purposes of image, diet companies such as Weight Watchers have to be careful whom they hire. If the receptionist at the front desk is overweight, it might send the wrong message to possible clients. But what if a job applicant is overweight because of a recent pregnancy?

These issues recently came up in federal court, in the case of EEOC v. The WW Group.  Weight Watchers has a category of members called “Lifetime Members.” Basically, if you achieve a weight goal that’s within the Weight Watchers “Healthy Weight Ranges,” and stay there for six consecutive weeks, you’re awarded lifetime membership (and presumably taught the secret handshake). Lifetime Members are eligible to apply for employment with Weight Watchers. Wendy Lamond-Broughton was a Lifetime Member and also pregnant, and decided to submit her application to become a group leader or receptionist. An Area Manager for Weight Watchers told her not to bother applying, because Weight Watchers didn’t hire pregnant women, and because her pregnancy would cause her to be over the prescribed weight range. (Yes: Insane.)

Weight Watchers has a goal weight policy for staff, which requires staff members to stay within 5 pounds of a goal weight. According to the policy: “An overweight staff person, however charismatic and likable, can raise questions in members’ minds as to the credibility of the Weight Watchers weight reduction program.” Pregnant staff members are allowed to work for Weight Watchers until their doctor recommends otherwise. There’s no written policy for applicants, only for staff.

The EEOC brought suit against Weight Watchers for pregnancy discrimination, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000e[k].  Weight Watchers defended by arguing that, although it had denied an interview to Broughton because she was pregnant, there was no basis for a discrimination claim.  Broughton was indisputably not at goal weight when she sought employment, and was therefore unqualified for the position. Weight Watchers therefore would not have hired Broughton even in the absence of any discriminatory motive.

Weight Watchers moved for summary judgment without even bothering to depose Broughton (which the Court noted with some annoyance). The Court rejected Weight Watcher’ argument, writing in part: “Because a group leader who is able to maintain goal weight but gains healthy weight due to pregnancy has no negative impact on the credibility of the WW program, such a person is not inherently an example of a failure of the program’s goals or methods at all. Consequently, when applied to a pregnant applicant whose over goal weight is wholly pregnancy-related, a question of fact exists as to whether the applicant goal weight policy has a legitimate connection to the applicant’s ability to perform the job.”

Weight Watchers’ position on the motion was particularly damaged by the deposition testimony of its own Manager, who confirmed that pregnant group leaders are permitted to continue working at Weight Watchers, and it “happens all the time.”

In reading this fact pattern, I have to wonder what the good folks at Weight Watchers were thinking. Do they have sufficient corporate training? Why would a Manager ever tell a prospective employee that she couldn’t be hired because Weight Watchers wouldn’t hire a pregnant person as a matter of principle? And why didn’t anyone above that Manager reverse the decision and apologize to Broughton before the EEOC got involved?

One loose cannon can sure do a lot of damage.

-- Gene Killian