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Extreme Obesity Not Caused by an Underlying Medical Condition Is Not a Disability Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Law

Extreme obesity cannot support a disability discrimination claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) without evidence that the condition was caused by a physiological disorder or condition, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.FN1 

A disability under the ADA is defined as: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a  record of such impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment.FN2 In Richardson v. CTA, a bus driver who was extremely obeseFN3 and suffered hypertension and sleep apnea was found medically unfit to perform his essential job functions, in part because the city’s bus seats were not designed to accommodate his weight, causing potential safety issues. The driver refused a proposal to assign him to disabled status while he lost weight, was ultimately fired, and sued for disability discrimination under the ADA, claiming his extreme obesity was a disabling “impairment.”

In its decision, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that under federal regulations, “impairments” must be tied to physiological disorders or conditions and do not include “physical characteristics” such as eye color, hair color, or weight, unless such characteristics are outside “normal” ranges and caused by a physiological disorder.FN4 Because the bus driver did not present evidence suggesting a physiological disorder caused his obesity or that his managers took him off duty because they believed he had a physiological disorder, the court affirmed summary judgment dismissal of his claim.                                                                 

Practical Takeaways 

Although the ADA is far-reaching, courts typically find that it protects only impairments stemming from an underlying medical or mental health issue. Notwithstanding the outcome in Richardson, employers should use caution when faced with employment issues concerning obesity (such as a request for an accommodation from an obese employee) which very often is caused by an underlying physiological condition.

 

Footnotes:

FN1:   Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, Nos. 17-3508 & 18-2199 (7th Cir. June 12, 2019).         The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from federal courts in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, joins the Second Circuit (covering Connecticut, New York, and Vermont), Sixth Circuit (covering Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee), and Eighth Circuit (covering Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota) in reaching this legal conclusion. See Morriss v. BNSF Ry. Co., 817 F.3d 1104, 1108-13 (8th Cir. 2016); EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d 436, 441-43 (6th Cir. 2006); Francis v. City of Meriden, 129 F.3d 281, 286-87 (2d Cir. 1997).

FN2:   29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1).

FN3:   An individual whose body mass index is 40 or higher is considered extremely obese.

FN4:See Richardson, slip op. at 14 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)).