Seventh Circuit Weighs In On Obesity Disability Debate

In general, federal appellate courts addressing obesity claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have held that absent an underlying physiological disorder, obesity is not a disability. However, EEOC guidance suggests, and some lower courts have concluded, that morbid obesity alone is an impairment under the ADA.

In a recent case, Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, Nos. 17-3508 and 18-2199 (7th Cir. 6/12/19), the Seventh Circuit followed the majority interpretation. Aligning itself with the Eighth, Sixth and Second Circuits, the Seventh Circuit held that extreme obesity is not an actionable disability unless caused by a physiological condition.

The Richardson case involved a bus operator, Richardson, who was required to undergo a fitness for duty test before returning to work following a bout of influenza.  Although he was deemed physically fit to operate a bus, Richardson had to pass a “special assessment” driving test due to his weight of over 400 pounds.  As a result of the test, Richardson was transferred to an assignment for medically unfit employees because he “exceeded the weight requirement to operate the bus.”  He was terminated two years later, after he refused to provide medical certification to extend his inactive status.

Richardson sued CTA, alleging he was discriminated against in violation of the ADA based on his extreme obesity disability. At issue in the case was whether Richardson could demonstrate either that his extreme obesity was an actual impairment, or that CTA regarded it as an impairment.  In support of his claim, Richardson relied upon EEOC Guidance that states:

It is important to distinguish between conditions that are impairments and physical, psychological, environmental, cultural, and economic characteristics that are not impairments.  The definition of the term “impairment” does not include physical characteristics such as eye color, hair color, left-handedness or height, weight, or muscle tone that are within “normal” range and are not the result of a physiological disorder.

The Court did not find Richardson’s interpretation of the guidance — that impairment includes the physical characteristic of weight if either the weight is not within normal range or the weight is the result of a physiological disorder — to be persuasive.  Rather, it explained, “a more natural reading of the interpretive guidance is that an individual’s weight is generally a physical characteristic that qualifies as a physical impairment only if it falls outside the normal range and it occurs as the result of physiological disorder.” Consequently, Richardson’s morbid obesity did not qualify, by itself (i.e., absent an underlying physiological disorder), as a disability under the ADA.

The Court also rejected Richardson’s “regarded as” disability claim, finding CTA perceived Richardson’s weight as a physical characteristic that made it unsafe to drive, and that there was no evidence CTA believed the weight was caused by an underlying disorder.

Although a “win” for employers, businesses should remain cautious when addressing obesity in the workplace, and continue to evaluate reasonable accommodations for employees who raise weight as a barrier to job performance.

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