Northern District Court of Florida
No. 4:06cv529-SPM/AK, 2007 WL 2972988
October 9, 2007
Keywords: definition of disability, employment, retailiation
Facts of the Case
Mr. Alex Cordero was employed as an Environmental Specialist from 1989 to 2005 within the Office of Coastal and Aquatic Management of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He served as a liaison for legislative affairs and manager to the Lake Ackson Aquatics Preserve. He also was assigned to various special projects and mosquito control. Mr. Cordero received positive performance evaluations until 2004 when Mr. Danny Riley became his supervisor. Mr. Riley allegedly made insensitive comments about Mr. Cordero’s weight. Mr. Cordero is medically obese. According to Mr. Cordero’s physician, his obesity is caused by a physiological disorder of his metabolic system and neurological appetite-suppressing signal system.
Mr. Riley complained about Mr. Cordero’s job performance, and in October 2004 reprimanded him for negligence and insubordination, ordering him to a corrective action plan that required a meeting between the two every Friday to report on the status of all pending assignments. Mr. Cordero complained to Ms. Katherine Andrews, the director of the Office of Coastal and Aquatic Management, and was told that Mr. Riley was entitled to issue reprimands as Mr. Cordero’s supervisor. In January 2005, Mr. Riley reprimanded Mr. Cordero for failure to complete two assignments, again ordering him to a corrective action plan. Mr. Cordero complained to DEP’s human resources bureau about the way he was treated by Mr. Riley, but did not claim he was being discriminated against because of his weight. Ms. Andrews was informed of the complaint and met with Mr. Riley and Mr. Cordero in February 2005. In this meeting Mr. Cordero complained of Mr. Riley’s treatment toward him, and that Mr. Riley’s instructions were sometimes unclear, but acknowledged that the corrective action plan was fair.
In April 2005, Mr. Cordero skipped his regular Friday meeting with Mr. Riley and had not requested to be excused. Ms. Andrews gave Mr. Cordero a reprimand for failing to attend the meeting and failing to complete assignments. She told Mr. Cordero that future failure to comply with the plan would result in his termination, and it would remain in place until she personally lifted it. In June 2005, a new Assistant Director of the Office replaced Mr. Riley, who told Mr. Cordero he no longer would have to attend the Friday meetings or have his assignments monitored as required under the corrective action plan. However, Ms. Andrews had not lifted the plan. In July 2005, Mr. Cordero failed to submit an assignment required under the plan, and explained to Ms. Andrews that he thought he was no longer under the corrective action plan. Ms. Andrews subsequently terminated Mr. Cordero.
Issues of the Case
- Mr. Cordero has a disability within the meaning of the ADA and was terminated due to his disability in violation of the ADA.
- Whether Mr. Cordero’s termination was in retaliation for complaining to human resources about how he was treated on the job.
- Whether Mr. Cordero was subjected to harassment in a hostile work environment.
Arguments & Analysis
1. Mr. Cordero argued that the DEP violated the ADA by terminating him on the basis of his obesity, and in retaliation for complaining to Human Resources about his treatment on the job. Mr. Cordero further argued that the failure to complete an assignment was a mere pretext for termination.
The DEP denied it unlawfully terminated Mr. Cordero. Specifically, DEP asserted that Mr. Cordero is not protected by the ADA because he does not have a disability; that Ms. Andrews had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating him; and that DEP could not have retaliated against him, nor could there be a claim for harassment, because Mr. Cordero failed to communicate disability discrimination to Human Resources.
The Court stated that obesity can be a physical impairment if it is the result of a physiological disorder. Additionally, Mr. Cordero testified that he has difficulty standing for more than 10 or 15 minutes and cannot walk more than one or two blocks without resting. The Court concluded a reasonable jury could determine that Mr. Cordero has a physical impairment and is substantially limited in the major life activities of standing and walking, compared to what an average person does on a daily basis.
The Court determined that due to Mr. Cordero’s failure to comply with the corrective action plan, Ms. Andrews’ decision to terminate him was legitimate and non-discriminatory. The Court also stated that because Mr. Cordero complained generally about being treated unfairly and not that disability discrimination occurred, he did not show sufficient evidence that he suffered retaliation for complaining, and that Mr. Riley’s insensitive comments about Mr. Cordero’s weight did not rise to the level of harassment.
The Court concluded a reasonable jury could determine that Mr. Cordero has a physical impairment and is substantially limited in the major life activities of standing and walking. However, the Court held that Mr. Cordero failed to show he was terminated on the basis of disability in retaliation for complaints to human resources, or that he experienced actionable harassment.
Policy & Practice
Obesity as a Disability
The Court concluded that Mr. Cordero’s obesity satisfied the definition of an individual with a disability under the ADA: specifically, his obesity is a physical impairment that “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.” The Court emphasized that obesity can be a physical impairment if it is the result of a physiological disorder. In contrast, a recent Eleventh Circuit decision in Greenberg v. Bellsouth Telecommunications, Inc. (September 10, 2007) found that the Plaintiff’s obesity did not substantially limit him in a major life activity, because he had no problem bathing and dressing himself and performing household chores. Although Mr. Greenberg stated he had some difficulties taking care of himself, he said it was due to his diabetes, which is controlled by medication, and not his obesity. Mr. Greenberg also testified he was physically able to walk, albeit apprehensive about distances.
In the Eleventh Circuit, “[t]o establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he engaged in statutorily protected expression; (2) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there is a causal connection between the two events.” The Court in the present case required the plaintiff show he specifically communicated to the employer that discrimination occurred, and not merely that mistreatment had occurred, in order to satisfy the requirement of “engag[ing] in statutorily protected expression.”
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.