A person’s weight is almost always a touchy subject and no doubt exists that sometimes people are judged in part by their weight. But, when is an employee’s weight a lawful factor of their employment and when does extreme weight become a disability protected by the ADA?
Recently, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court covering Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, weighed in (pun intended) and held that obesity without a physiological cause is not a disability protected by the ADA.
In the case of Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, the plaintiff was a bus driver for the CTA, who weighed almost 600 pounds. The results of a safety and fitness evaluation revealed that he could only drive with two feet (one on the gas and one on the brake), could not perform a hand over hand turn of the wheel, exceeded the seat capacity so that his body pressed up against the door opener, as well as other weight related issues. The CTA concluded that these presented a safety hazard and removed him from service.
Plaintiff was eventually discharged for safety reasons. He filed suit alleging that the CTA violated the ADA, claiming that his obesity was a disability or, in the alternative, that he was perceived as being disabled, also an ADA violation. The 7th Circuit had never addressed the issue of obesity as a disability under the ADA.
The ADA prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.” To succeed on an ADA claim, an employee must show: “(1) he is disabled; (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the adverse job action was caused by his disability.”
The ADA defines 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.” At issue in the case was whether plaintiff could demonstrate either: (1) his extreme obesity is an actual impairment; or (2) CTA perceived his extreme obesity to be an impairment.
Joining three other circuits where this issue has been previously decided, the court held that obesity is an ADA impairment only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition. Plaintiff provided no such evidence and therefore his claim failed. Similarly, his claim that he was discriminated against because he was perceived to be disabled also failed. As the court explained it, “[T]he plaintiff must allege that the employer believed, however erroneously, that the plaintiff suffered from an ‘impairment’ that, if it truly existed, would be covered under the [ADA]...”. Since plaintiff did not show that his extreme obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition, he could not prove that he was perceived to be disabled either.
Interestingly, the court noted that if it were to find that obesity without a physiological cause was a disability under the ADA, it would immediately provide protection to the almost 40% of Americans who currently meet the medical definition of obese; an absurd result according to the court.
Although employers can be grateful for the court’s ruling here, making employment decisions based on obesity is still tricky business. Many obese individuals have underlying physiological conditions causing the obesity (thyroid, metabolic, etc). Similarly, obese individuals also often have physiological conditions secondary to obesity (hypertension, cardiovascular, diabetes, etc.). It is always a best practice to focus on the whether an employee can perform the essential functions of a position or whether they present specific safety concerns. If such issues are the result of the employee’s obesity, then an employer can explore whether a physiological condition exists and, if so, whether a reasonable accommodation is available.