Can’t Slide in for a White Castle Slider
From suing a beer company because sexy women didn’t appear after drinking Bud Light to suing a haunted house because it was frightening, there is no shortage of ridiculous lawsuits in America. Still, you might be surprised to hear about Martin Kessman, a stockbroker from New York. After finding he was too fat to fit into the booths at his local White Castle, Mr. Kessman, weighing in at 290 pounds, didn’t go on a diet or for a jog. He notified the Castle’s execs of his intention to sue.
White Castle management quickly responded, apologizing for Mr. Kessman’s discomfort, providing him with a list of White Castles with different seating, explaining that he can ask for a chair at any of their restaurants, and even including three coupons for free hamburgers. This gesture was met by Mr. Kessman with anger that the coupons were for plain burgers; he preferred cheese on his sliders, and cheese costs extra. You can’t make this stuff up.
Regardless of how you feel about Mr. Kessman’s complaints, the fact of the matter is he has made them. He sued White Castle in a Manhattan federal court for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming obesity as a disability and asserting his right to equal protection of the laws as an overweight individual. Does he have a valid legal argument? Are “fat” people covered under the ADA? Does White Castle have to restructure its entire restaurant to fit Mr. Kessman?
The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” The Act then defines major life activities as, “including, but not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” Mr. Kessman seemingly is able to handle all of these functions just fine, although one could argue (and his lawyer certainly will) that obese people are substantially limited in their ability to do things such as “bend.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Kessman, a court has ruled that obesity is not a disability. In 1997, the United States Courts of Appeals, Second Circuit, stated in Francis v. City of Meridan that unless a person’s weight stems from another disease or disability (diabetes, paralysis, etc.) it cannot be considered a disability under the ADA or Rehabilitation Act. In other words, the court flat out stated that by itself obesity is not a disability, and Mr. Kessman has not alleged any cause for his obesity.
As surefire a win as this seems for White Castle, our legal system is nothing if not unpredictable. Let’s say the court somehow finds that Mr. Kessman does suffer from a disability because of his weight. Did White Castle discriminate against him? The Act states, “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”
John Thorpe, from Benzinga.com, argues a point of view that doubtless many share, even if written bluntly. He writes, “I’m not sure Kessman even has a case against White Castle. If the booths are uncomfortable, he can always get his food to go. Is it really a civil rights violation because he’d have to either squeeze into a booth or go through the drive-thru? It’s not like they’re making him sit at the back of the store with the other fatties.”
But if Mr. Keessman’s obesity was found to stem from another illness, and therefore was deemed a disability, the Castle’s unaccommodating booths would be a civil rights violation. The Act states that an individual is entitled to “full and equal enjoyment” of facilities. White Castle argues, and it is a good argument, that the restaurant would have offered Mr. Kessman a chair if he had asked, giving him full enjoyment of the seating area.
Just imagine how many burgers Mr. Kessman could have treated himself to with the money spent on legal fees.
UPDATE: December 19, 2011 – Be of good cheer! Mr. Kessman’s local White Castle has installed a table and chairs, and so the lawsuit has been dropped.