Obesity has been recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association, National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization. Does that mean obesity qualifies as a physical impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Stated differently, may an individual claim that he is disabled under the ADA, based solely on the fact he or she is obese? According to the circuit courts that have addressed the issue, the answer is clearly no.
In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, the Seventh Circuit joined the Second, Sixth and Eighth Circuits (and the majority of district courts) as the latest court to hold that obesity alone is not a physical impairment as contemplated by the ADA. Relying on the plain language of the EEOC regulation implementing the ADA, the Seventh Circuit found that obesity may be a physical impairment as contemplated by the ADA only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition.
AN ADA REFRESHER
The ADA prohibits employment discrimination based on an individual’s disability. To succeed on an ADA claim, a person must first show he is disabled under the act. The ADA defines a “disability” as: “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” While Congress has not defined “impairment,” the EEOC defines a “physical impairment” as “[a]ny 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.” EEOC guidance, which interprets both the ADA and the EEOC regulation, 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 UNDERLYING FACTS
Mark Richardson worked for Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) as a bus operator. In early February 2010, Richardson missed work because he had the flu. He later attempted to return to work, but was told he could not due to his uncontrolled hypertension. He was transferred to Temporary Medical Disability—Area 605. In September 2010, Richardson was deemed “physically fit to work as a bus operator.” But he was required to complete a safety assessment because he weighed over 400 pounds. CTA’s bus seats were not designed to accommodate drivers weighing over 400 pounds. The safety assessment was not favorable, finding that Richardson should not operate a CTA bus at any time.
After the assessment, CTA proposed transferring Richardson back to Area 605 so he could work with doctors to lose weight. In exchange for the transfer, Richardson would be required to release various legal claims. Richardson refused. In March 2011, CTA still transferred Richardson to Area 605. In October 2011, CTA informed Richardson he would need to submit medical documentation to extend his time in Area 605 beyond February 2012. CTA terminated Richardson in February 2012 after he failed to submit the required documentation.
THE RICHARDSON HOLDING
After exhausting his administrative remedies, Richardson filed suit alleging CTA violated the ADA by refusing to allow him to return to work as a bus operator because he was obese. The district court granted summary judgment in CTA’s favor, finding that Richardson’s obesity did not qualify as a protected physical impairment under the ADA.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling on appeal. In reaching its ultimate conclusion, the Seventh Circuit found that:
(1) the ADA’s definition of physical impairment is inextricably tied to a physiological disorder or condition; and
(2) the natural reading of the EEOC’s “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 a physiological disorder.”
The Seventh Circuit rejected Richardson’s alternative argument that CTA violated the ADA because it perceived his obesity to be a physical impairment. The court found that to succeed on that claim, Richardson had to demonstrate that CTA took action against him based on the belief that his condition was an ADA impairment and not merely a physical characteristic. Richard did not make that showing, according to the Seventh Circuit, because he could not demonstrate CTA believed his obesity was caused by a physiological disorder or condition.
The Seventh Circuit also recognized that the medical community and federal and state policymakers have identified obesity as a disease, but noted that the ADA is not a public health statute. The court noted that a determination that obesity alone is an ADA impairment could have unavoidable, nonrealistic consequences as up to 40% of the American population would immediately have an ADA impairment.
- As the Seventh Circuit is the fourth federal court of appeals to reject obesity as an ADA impairment, the issue appears to be settled for now.
- Employers should nevertheless exercise caution when faced with a request for an accommodation from an obese employee. An obese employee may still have an ADA-covered disability — provided there is an underlying physiological disorder or condition, such as hypothyroidism.
- Employers should also be mindful that obese employees often suffer from medical conditions that are ADA-impairments, such as diabetes or heart disease. In those instances, whether the employee is obese should not matter in determining whether the employee is entitled to the protections afforded by the ADA.