Richard Helmrich worked as an Assistant Director of Food and Beverage at Mountain Creek Resort. He was a large man, six-feet-tall with a body mass index between 40.27 and 47.53, above the threshold for obesity. During his employment with the Resort he informed his boss of his weight and heart conditions. His doctor diagnosed him as medically obese. He provided his boss with a note that his cardiologist prepared for him, restricting the amount of weight that he was medically permitted to lift.
Helmrich testified that several individual defendants at the Resort regularly made observations about his weight, some of them by the owner himself within earshot of other employees. One comment was that Helmrich needed to lose weight; another was that he needed to work harder at the gym to lose weight. Yet another comment was that he was still fat. Some of the comments were made in front of others, who would laugh at Helmrich’s expense.
On one occasion Helmrich notified his supervisor of one of these incidents in accordance with the Resort’s harassment policy. A chef at the Resort said that Helmrich was “too large” and not “attractive” enough to approach customers’ tables in the restaurant. Notwithstanding these kinds of comments, Helmrich never filed a formal complaint with Human Resources.
Helmrich did receive a written warning in July 2014 for poor performance. He believed that his boss, Mr. Polchinksi, was delegating additional duties to him beyond the scope of his job and holding him to a higher standard than his subordinates. He did not, however, tell anyone in supervision that he was being treated differently because of his weight.
Matters came to a head in December 2014 when his boss was promoted, thereby opening up the position of Director of Food and Beverage. Helmrich was not told about the vacancy or encouraged to apply. An employee who used to work under Helmrich by the name of Heaps was chosen for the position. When that occurred, Helmrich met with supervision to ask why he was not considered for the position of Director of Food and Beverage. He argued that he had the qualifications, holding an associate’s degree in hospitality management from Art Institute of New York.
Helmrich did not allege that he was denied the position due to his weight. The company advised Helmrich that he was not chosen for the promotion because he failed to improve his work performance after the July 2014 written warning. The company told Helmrich that he was a good asset and a “great second man in command.” He was assured that he would be trained for future growth.
Helmrich resigned from his position on December 29, 2014 due to his perception of a hostile work environment. He sued under both the ADA and New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The District Court noted that the United States Third Circuit has not expressly adopted obesity as a disability that substantially limits a major life activity. The Court said, “Without excluding the possibility that obesity may under other circumstances constitute a disability under the ADA, the Court finds that it does not here.” The Court observed that Helmrich never claimed that his obesity “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The Court added that although Helmrich had a weight lifting restriction, he did not dispute that his weight does not make it more difficult for him to stand, walk, bend or complete other movements necessary for him to work.
The Court next considered whether the Resort regarded Helmrich as being disabled. “There is no question, therefore, that Defendants ‘regarded’ Plaintiff as obese.” The Court said that is not enough because there was no evidence that the Resort perceived him as having an impairment. “Plaintiff does not argue that his weight limited his ability to stand, walk, bend, or complete other movements necessary for him to work.” The Court said that none of the defendants perceived Helmrich’s weight as physically interfering with his ability to do his job. The Court found that there was insufficient evidence to prove the Resort regarded Helmrich as having a disability under the ADA.
The case is instructive. It may be found at Helmrich v. Mountain Creek Resort Inc., (D.N.J. October 15, 2018). It shows that unfortunate remarks like those directed at the plaintiff may not be actionable in court if the plaintiff never tells anyone about them in HR or supervision of files a formal complaint.