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Obesity and the ADA: Obesity is Not a Disability?

Obesity alone is not a disability under the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”) or so holds the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Seventh Circuit is the federal appeals court for Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, Mark Richardson worked as a temporary bus driver from August 1999 until February 2012 for the Chicago Transit Authority (“CTA”).  In 2010, Richardson weighed close to 600 pounds, and the CTA made him take a test to determine if he could still safely drive the bus.  The CTA found he could not because he put his foot on the gas and brake at the same time; was unable to make hand over hand turns; rested his leg too close to the door handle; could not see the floor of the bus from his seat; and the seat, not designed to withstand weight over 400 pounds, deflated when he sat down.  Following the test, the CTA put Richardson on leave and, after two years of “inactive status,” terminated his employment.  Richardson sued for disability discrimination based on his obesity.  The question before the Court was whether obesity alone was a disability under the ADA.  The district court granted summary judgment to the CTA finding Richardson could not show he had an impairment under the ADA because there was no proof his obesity was the result of a physiological condition.  Simply put, the Court reasoned a physiological disorder is required to have a disability under the ADA. 

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.  In making its determination, the Seventh Circuit joined the Second Circuit (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York, and Vermont) on this issue.

The Court found unpersuasive the argument that obesity, in and of itself, is a physiological disorder. Taken to its conclusion, the Court found this would yield an unrealistic result because any obesity, not just extreme obesity would be covered.  Therefore, people who are only slightly overweight would be covered.

The Court also found Richardson was not regarded as disabled in violation of the ADA because there was no proof anyone he worked with thought he was obese because of a physiological disorder. 

For employers this decision serves as a good reminder that all conditions may not be disabilities under the ADA even given a broad interpretation of the law.  However, in the future, obesity may be the next protected class.  Michigan is presently the only state to explicitly protect workers against weight discrimination.   However, as the law is ever changing, we expect more States and localities to follow Michigan’s lead and add weight as a protected class.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on the ADA, as well as other civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.