The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held obesity alone is not a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in its ruling in Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority. The Seventh Circuit’s decision is consistent with holdings by the Second, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits.

In Richardson, the Plaintiff, Mark Richardson, was a bus operator for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). During his employment, Richardson’s weight rose from 350 pounds in 2005 to 566 pounds in 2009. In February 2010, Richardson missed work because of the flu. When he attempted to return to work, CTA’s third-party medical provider documented he had uncontrolled hypertension and could not return to work until he was able to control his blood pressure. For that reason, CTA transferred Richardson to “Area 605,” a temporary position for employees who are medically unfit to perform the essential functions of their job.

Although Richardson was deemed physically fit to return to work in September 2010, CTA’s bus seats were not designed to accommodate drivers who weigh more than 400 pounds. Richardson was required to complete a “special assessment” to determine whether he could safely perform his job prior to returning to work as a bus operator. Although CTA’s assessors determined Richardson “[could] drive all of CTA’s buses in a safe and trusted manner,” they noted several safety concerns, including that he could not make hand-over-hand turns, he cross pedaled – meaning he used both of his feet on the gas and brake pedals – and he rested his leg near the door handle, among other things. Due to the safety concerns, CTA determined that Richardson could not safely operate its buses. CTA then transferred Richardson back to Area 605.

After Richardson reached two years of inactive status and failed to submit documentation to extend his time in Area 605, he was terminated in February 2012.

Richardson filed suit against CTA claiming it violated the ADA by refusing to allow him to return to work because it regarded him as being too obese to work as a bus operator. The Seventh Circuit, affirming the judgment of the district court, held that Richardson’s obesity was not a protected disability under the ADA because he had not presented any evidence that his obesity was caused by a “physiological disorder or condition” or that anyone at CTA perceived Richardson’s obesity as a disability.

Under the ADA, a disability is defined 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.” In a regulation implementing the ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defined “physical impairment” as "Any physiological disorder or condition ... affecting one or more body systems ... ."

Based on this definition of physical impairment, the Court determined that obesity was not a disability under the ADA unless there was evidence of an underlying physiological disorder or condition, which Richardson did not present. The Court also denied Richardson’s “regarded as” disability claim because he failed to present any evidence that CTA believed his obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition.

Although the Seventh Circuit’s ruling provides clarity regarding whether obesity is a disability under the ADA, employers should still proceed with caution when taking adverse action against employees who are obese. Notably, the Richardson decision does not eliminate obesity as a potential disability under the ADA.

To the contrary, obesity may be a protected disability under the ADA if there is evidence of an underlying physiological disorder or condition that causes the obesity or if an employer believes that an underlying physiological disorder or condition causes the obesity, which then motivates it to take adverse action.