The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that extreme obesity, without evidence of an underlying physiological condition, does not meet the definition of a physical impairment and therefore is not considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, due to the employee’s extreme obesity, he was deemed unsafe to work in his position as a bus driver. He was eventually terminated after a two-year leave. He then sued, alleging violations of the ADA.
The Seventh Circuit found that the driver was unprotected by the ADA because the implementing regulations state that obesity is an impairment only if it results from an underlying “physiological disorder or condition,” which the employee failed to show. In so holding, the Seventh Circuit joined the Second, Sixth and Eighth Circuits. The Seventh Circuit rejected arguments from medical organizations that obesity is in and of itself a physiological disorder, noting that “The ADA is an antidiscrimination – not a public health – statute, and Congress’s desires as it relates to the ADA do not necessarily align with those of the medical community.”
The Seventh Circuit also rejected the employee’s argument that he was perceived as disabled in violation of the ADA. While he was subjected to adverse employment actions because of the physical characteristic of his weight, there was no evidence that anyone perceived that his obesity was caused by a physiological disorder.
We note, however, that the EEOC takes a different approach, stating as follows in its Compliance Manual: “[B]eing overweight, in and of itself, is not generally an impairment… On the other hand, severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm, is clearly an impairment. In addition, a person with obesity may have an underlying or resultant physiological disorder, such as hypertension or a thyroid disorder. A physiological disorder is an impairment.” Thus, employers should be aware that the EEOC does not require an underlying physiological disorder in order for obesity to be considered an impairment and thereby the obese employee to be disabled.