Can Homer Simpson sue Mr. Burns for disability bias, and win?

October 11, 2011
By Eric B. Meyer on October 11, 2011 7:00 AM | | Comments

homer.jpgIn yesterday's post, we looked at whether a morbidly-obese employee is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Today, let's apply yesterday's discussion to a "real-world" example. Is Homer Simpson disabled? And is the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant legally obligated to offer him a reasonable accommodation? The answers after the jump...

* * *

Sick of the workaday grind at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant (SNPP), in Season 7 of The Simpsons, Homer concocts a scheme to gain enough weight to be classified as disabled, in order to work from home and get out of participating in SNPP's new employee-fitness program. Homer gets this idea by reading a book entitled "Am I Disabled?"

Homer: [reading the book] "'Carpal tunnel syndrome'...no. 'Lumber lung'...no. 'Juggler's despair'...no. 'Achy breaky pelvis'...no. Oh, I'm never going to be disabled! I'm sick of being so healthy. Hey, wait...hyper-obesity! 'If you weigh more than 300 pounds, you qualify as disabled.'"

With a target weight of 300 pounds in mind, he eats everything in site, including Maggie's Play-Doh. Ultimately, Homer reaches is weight goal. Woo hoo!

But is he truly disabled? And does SNPP have to accommodate him?

Mr. Burns is a super boss!

I think we can all agree that the SNPP is not exactly the ideal place to work. Over the past 20 years, SNPP has had its share of FLSA issues and OSHA problems and anti-trust concerns. But disability discrimination? No way!

homeroffice.jpgIt would appear as if, at the very least, SNPP regarded Homer as disabled. (Remember our discussion of "regarded as" from yesterday's discussion). That is, when it learned that Homer had hit 300 lbs, it provided him with a home office. Heck, Mr. Burns even honored Homer with a formal dedication:

Cut to Homer's new home office. Many plant personnel are gathered around for the inauguration ceremony. 

Burns: [clears throat] "I'm pleased to dedicate this remote work terminal; it will allow our safety inspector here to perform his duties from home. And so excelsior to you, Mr...[to Smithers] What's the name of this gastropod?" 

Smithers: "Simpson, Sir. One of your chair moisteners from Sector 7G." 

Burns: "Yes...Simpson!" 

[Everyone claps.] 

Homer: [teary] "Thank you for your pity." 

Lisa Simpson: "Mom, were you ever planning to step in and put a stop to this?" 

Marge: "Normally your father's crackpot schemes fizzle out as soon as he finds something good on TV. But this season..." [shudders]

And, after Homer saves the entire Town of Springfield from certain disaster wedges his butt into an exploding gas tank -- how ironic, Mr. Burns helps Homer drop the added weight by paying for the "blasted liposuction."

But does 300-pound, "hyper-obese" Homer have an actual disability?

As we discussed yesterday, an employee has an actual disability if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activites are basic activities that most people in the general population can perform with little or no difficulty. The ADAAA provides a non-exhaustive list of examples of major life activities. Examples of major life activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working. The supporting regulations include three others: sitting, reaching, and interacting with others.

Yesterday's post involved a morbidly-obese 680-pound man who allegedly had trouble breathing, bending, and sitting. In "King Size Homer," Homer does visit Dr. Nick Riviera about his weight issues. However, it's not what you think. Dr. Nick, who in Season Four performed a triple bypass on Homer (assisted by Lisa Simpson -- naturally), advised Homer on ways he could gain weight:

Dr. Nick Riviera walks into the room. 

Dr. Nick: Hi everybody! 

Homer+Bart: Hi Doctor Nick! 

Nick: Now there are many options available for dangerously underweighted individuals like yourself. I recommend a slow steady gorging process combined with assal horizontology. 

Homer: [pensive] Of course. 

Nick: [points to a chart] You'll want to focus on the neglected food groups such as the whipped group, the congealed group and the chocotastic! 

Homer: What can I do to speed the whole thing up, Doctor?

Nick: Well...be creative. Instead of making sandwiches with bread, use pop tarts. Instead of chewing gum, chew bacon, heh...

Bart: You could brush your teeth with milkshakes!

Dr. Nick: Hey, did you go to Hollywood Upstairs Medical College too? And remember, if you're not sure about something, rub it against a piece of paper. If the paper turns clear, it's your window to weight gain. Bye bye, everybody!

What does Homer's "hyper-obesity" restrict him from doing? We know from the episode that it restricts him from riding a skateboard; Homer jumps on a skateboard in an effort to high-tail it to SNPP to save the town from the potential gas explosion. However, the skateboard splits in half under the stress of Homer's weight. Notwithstanding, skateboarding could hardly be considered major life activity. 

Homer also tries to drive to SNPP, but the tires on his car explode after he jumps in. Is driving a major life activity? No, not according to this 2007 Third-Circuit case. And, it should be noted that Homer later commandeers an ice-cream truck to get to SNPP and save the day.

However, given the expansiveness of the recent amendments to the ADA, Homer may argue that he is actually disabled. Before leaving his house, Homer tries to call SNPP to warn the plant about the potential explosion. However, his fingers are too fat to dial one number at a time. (A recorded message informs Homer that he may mash his palm into the keypad to obtain a special dialing wand). Dialing the phone may be a "major life activity". In this ADA case, the Sixth Circuit described "dialing the telephone" as a "common daily function." 

hutz.jpgBut should Homer retain Lionel Hutz as his attorney -- be sure to pay his retainer -- to pursue a disability discrimination claim in some mystery jurisdiction

Probably not. 

If Mr. Burns is willing to set Homer up with a home office, I can't imagine why he would not provide the dialing wand and risk an ADA reasonable accommodation lawsuit. I also question whether Homer possesses the skills to perform the essential functions of his position, with or without a reaosonable accommation -- to the extent that computer skills are required to be a SNPP safety inspector.

Sorry, Homer. You'll just have to figure out some other get-rich-quick scheme. D'oh!

Image credits: infostarcelebrity.blogspot.com, nohomers.net, styleforum.net