Obesity Alone Is Not a Disability Under the ADA

 

By Michael D. Malone September 10, 2019
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​Without evidence of an underlying physiological disorder or condition, extreme obesity is not an impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) employed the plaintiff as a full-time bus driver from 1999 until 2012. The plaintiff weighed 350 pounds in 2005. In 2009, his weight was 566 pounds. After an absence from work because of the flu in February 2010, the plaintiff was not cleared to return to work by a health care provider because of uncontrolled hypertension and blood pressure issues. The CTA placed him on temporary medical disability status, which was the CTA's mechanism for addressing situations where employees have been found to be unfit medically to perform the essential functions of their job due to an illness or injury.

A medical provider in September 2010 found that the plaintiff was physically fit to resume his job as a bus driver. However, he was required to participate in a safety assessment to ensure that he could safely perform the bus driver duties. The CTA bus instructors who conducted the safety assessment concluded that it would be unsafe for him to operate any of the CTA's buses at that time. The instructors noted that the CTA's bus seats are not designed to accommodate drivers weighing over 400 pounds. They also made other observations, including the plaintiff's inability to make hand-over-hand turns, his placement of his foot on the gas and brake at the same time, and the way his body hung off the driver's seat.

Instead of firing the plaintiff, the CTA offered him the opportunity to participate in a weight-loss program designed to allow him the chance to resume his bus driver duties. He declined the offer, and the CTA returned the plaintiff to temporary medical disability status.

In October 2011, the CTA informed the plaintiff that he was approaching two years of inactive status and, in accordance with CTA policy, advised him that he could extend his temporary medical disability status for an additional year by submitting medical documentation. After he failed to submit any medical documentation, the CTA fired him in February 2012.

The plaintiff sued the CTA, alleging that it violated the ADA by refusing to allow him to return to work because it regarded him as being too obese to work as a bus driver. The trial court held, based on the language of the ADA and pertinent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that "to qualify as a protected physical impairment, claimants under the ADA must show that their severe obesity is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition." Because the plaintiff presented no such evidence, the trial court entered judgment in the CTA's favor.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the trial court and ruled in favor of the CTA. The 7th Circuit noted that the definition of a physical impairment under the ADA remains inextricably tied to a "physiological disorder or condition." As such, the appeals court held that an employee's weight, even if outside the normal range, is not an impairment under the ADA without evidence of an underlying physiological condition. The 7th Circuit also decided that the plaintiff failed to present enough evidence that the CTA had perceived that his extreme obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition.

Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, 7th Cir. Nos. 17-3508 & 18-2199 (June 12, 2019).

Professional Pointer: The 7th Circuit joins the 2nd, 6th and 8th circuits in ruling that, absent evidence that it was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition, extreme obesity is not a physical impairment under the ADA. The 7th Circuit noted in this case that most federal district courts are in agreement. It is important to recognize, though, that not all federal courts agree with the 7th Circuit's holding in this case and that some state courts have interpreted state workplace discrimination laws differently. Employers should continue to proceed cautiously when addressing performance and safety issues that involve an employee with extreme obesity. Had the employee's condition in this case qualified as a protected physical impairment, the court's focus would have shifted to the employer's reasonable accommodation process, efforts and analysis. Finally, employers should take note that this case demonstrates that not every recognized medical condition will qualify automatically as a protected disability under the ADA.

Michael D. Malone is an attorney with Malone, Thompson, Summers & Ott LLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Columbia, S.C.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

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