Weight Watchers Thrown for a Loss in EEOC Lawsuit

Clifford Geiger
Clifford Geiger

A federal judge recently denied Weight Watchers’ attempt to dismiss  a Pregnancy Discrimination Act lawsuit filed against it by the EEOC.   EEOC v. The WW Group, Inc., d/b/a Weight Watchers, Case 2:12-cv-11124 PDB-MAR (E.D. Mich. Dec. 2, 2013). The suit claims that the company did not permit Wendy Lamond-Broughton (“Broughton”) to apply for a job because she was pregnant.  The company defended on the grounds that Broughton was not qualified for employment as one of its group leaders or receptionists (both positions that would put her in contact with the public), because she was not at her goal weight.

Broughton was a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers, which made her eligible to apply for employment.  She had successfully used the Weight Watchers program for several years to lose and maintain weight, and she became a Lifetime Member by maintaining her goal weight for six consecutive weeks.  A member’s goal weight is a specific weight chosen by the member, but it must fall within a certain weight range determined by body mass index (BMI) guidelines.  Members may change their goal weight as long as it falls within the acceptable weight range for their height and age, but they must submit paperwork and receive approval.

Weight Watchers argued that all of its job applicants must be at or below their personal goal weight to be considered for employment.  The company also requires all employees who have contact with the public to maintain their weight “at goal” during employment, but there are exceptions for pregnant or nursing mothers, who are required to maintain their weight within their doctor’s recommended weight range before “getting back to goal.”  Weight Watchers contends these requirements are necessary to promote the success of its weight loss and control principles and to support the credibility of its program.

In May 2009 Broughton became pregnant with her second child.  She weighed 154.6 pounds, which was 9.4 pounds below her goal weight.  In September 2009, Broughton received a call inviting her to attend an information session regarding employment.  She had submitted an Employment Opportunity Reply Card back in March 2009.  Broughton was told not to bother because Weight Watchers would not hire her; she was pregnant.   Weight Watchers conceded, for purposes of its motion, that there was direct evidence of pregnancy discrimination, but argued that Broughton was not a qualified applicant because she was above her goal weight.  In fact, Broughton, in the fifth month of her pregnancy, weighed 169 pounds, which was 5 pounds more than her goal weight but still within the applicable healthy BMI range.

The Court refused to dismiss the case, stating that a qualification requirement that is unrelated to job performance is not a sufficient basis on which to refuse to hire someone; even if the requirement is facially objective. The Court found there was, at a minimum, a question whether the qualification imposed by Weight Watchers was actually job related.  In this regard, Weight Watchers conceded that Broughton would have been considered for employment if she had been at or below her goal weight, but if she had been hired she would then be covered by the staff policy, which allowed weight gain for pregnancy.  Also, the Court noted that an applicant could change her goal weight to become eligible for employment, even though pregnancy would soon take her above that goal weight once hired.

The Court concluded that Weight Watchers’ policy, as applied to a job candidate such as Broughton, whose above-goal weight at the time of application may be attributable solely to pregnancy, is unrelated to the non-discriminatory policy articulated by Weight Watchers.  Although Weight Watchers contended that it cannot have people who are overweight as spokespersons, the testimony showed that pregnant employees were permitted to continued working “all the time.”  The Court noted, a woman who gains weight because of pregnancy has no negative impact on the credibility of the Weight Watchers program.

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