Employee's Obesity Was Not ADA-Protected Disability, 7th Circuit Rules

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

July 2, 2019

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not protect an obese bus driver whose employer refused to let him return to work, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, the appellate court held that obesity is an ADA impairment only if it is the result of an underlying "physiological disorder or condition."

The court noted that individuals have "extreme obesity" whenever they weigh more than 315 pounds. The plaintiff in this case weighed well over 400 pounds and claimed that his employer illegally regarded him as disabled when it placed him on temporary medical disability and later terminated him because of his weight.

But writing for the 7th Circuit, Judge Joel Flaum disagreed. He noted that the Chicago Transit Authority perceived the bus operator's excessive weight as a physical characteristic that made it unsafe for him to drive. The court also found no evidence suggesting an underlying physiological disorder or condition that caused the plaintiff's obesity.

It added that if the driver were to prevail, the "regarded as" prong of the ADA would become a catch-all cause of action for discrimination based on appearance, size and any number of other things far removed from why the ADA was passed.

"This ruling brings clarity to an issue employers have struggled with in the past," said Chicago employment attorney Stacey Smiricky of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP. However, she cautioned that it does not completely safeguard employers.

"The decision does not mean obesity cannot be a protected disability - it can be if an underlying physiological disorder or condition actually causes the obesity," said Smiricky. She also noted that employers must consider state and local laws because some states have broader definitions of disability, including Michigan, which has a law prohibiting weight discrimination.

The decision represents a ruling of first impression in the Chicago-based 7th Circuit. However, three other federal appellate courts - the 2nd, 6th and 8th Circuits - have reached similar holdings.