Legal Updates


SEVENTH CIRCUIT ADDRESSES OBESITY UNDER THE ADA

September 10, 2019

Obesity has become a pressing public health concern for the United States. As around 40% of the United States population is classified as “obese,” it is no wonder that questions surrounding this health concern have crept their way into the legal system.

In June of 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applied to discrimination based on extreme obesity.

The ADA prohibits an employer from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified candidate based on a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). To make a successful claim under the ADA, an employee must show:

1. They are disabled;
2. They are otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; and
3. They experienced an adverse job action caused by their disability.

Further, the ADA defines disability as:

1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
2. A record of such an impairment; or
3. Being regarded as having such an impairment.

42 U.S.C. § 1202(1).

Notably, the text of the ADA does not define what exactly constitutes an “impairment.” However, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations define “physical impairment” as:

Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.

29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1).

In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Auth., 926 F.3d 881 (7th Cir. 2019), the Seventh Circuit addressed whether extreme obesity qualified as a “physical impairment” under the ADA. Mr. Richardson worked as a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) for approximately 20 years. During his time with the CTA, Richardson’s weight fluctuated between 350 to 566 pounds and his Body Mass Index (BMI) was classified as “extreme obesity.”

After Richardson took a leave of absence from work due to illness, the CTA’s medical provider concluded that Richardson could not return to work until he controlled his blood pressure. Upon this recommendation, the CTA transferred Richardson to Temporary Medical Disability – Area 605 (Area 605). Despite sounding like something out of a science fiction film, Area 605 was merely “a budgetary assignment for eligible union employees who have been found medically unfit to perform the essential functions of their job classification due to an illness or injury.”

Richardson recovered from his illness and was determined to be physically fit to work. However, the CTA required Richardson to complete a safety clearance before he returned to work. As a component of this safety clearance, the CTA determined that Richardson’s weight exceeded the manufacturer’s maximum allowable weight standards. Thus, the CTA determined Richardson could not safely operate CTA buses, and Richardson was transferred back to Area 605. In response, Richardson filed suit claiming the CTA’s refusal to allow him to serve as a bus operator due to his weight violated the ADA.

Richardson’s central argument rested on the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). The ADAAA expanded the definitions of “substantially limits” and “major life activity” within the original text of the ADA. These changes broadened coverage under the ADA to include impairments that previously may not have qualified as a disability. Richardson argued that the expanded definitions covered extreme obesity as a disability under the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit held that obesity, on its own, is not a physical impairment within the meaning of the EEOC’s regulations. Under a plain reading of the regulations, a physical impairment must be a “physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems.” The Seventh Circuit further noted that the ADAAA did not alter the definition of “impairment.” Thus, the precondition of an underlying physiological disorder or condition was necessary to establish extreme obesity as a disability.

The Court concluded that Richardson was required to produce evidence that his obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition to qualify as a disability. Richardson was unable to produce this evidence and his ADA claim failed.

While the Richardson decision provides clarity to the Seventh Circuit’s treatment of obesity under the ADA, employers should not assume that individuals experiencing extreme obesity are never protected under the ADA. Disorders such as hypothyroidism, which would likely qualify as a disability, may cause weight gain and lead to obesity. In that situation, because the obesity was caused by an underlying physiological condition, the ADA would offer protection to the employee. Additionally, some medical conditions caused by extreme obesity, such as diabetes, may also constitute a disability under the ADA. Employers are well-advised to consult legal counsel when considering adverse action with an employee that may be disabled.

For questions regarding this article, please contact the author, Attorney Colin M. Lane (email: clane@strangpatteson.com; telephone: 844-626-0909), or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, s.c., attorney.

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