The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 substantially expanded the definition of protected disabled persons under federal anti-discrimination laws. In most circumstances, employers do not spend much time arguing that the plaintiff is outside the ADA’s coverage. However, in a few cases, the defendant may contend that the claimed disability is only a physical characteristic and not a protected medical condition. In recent years, many of these disputes have involved claims by obese employees.
Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals joined a number of other federal circuits in holding that obesity itself is not protected under the ADA in the absence of a medical impairment. In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Auth., the plaintiff was a 400-pound bus driver who took medical leave due to hypertension. He was able to resolve the medical issues and sought to return to work, but his employer transferred him due to safety concerns over his operating the bus based on his size and its resulting incompatibility with the equipment in question. He sued under the ADA, claiming that he should be regarded as disabled due to his obesity.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer. The court determined that under the ADA, the plaintiff must allege that he suffers from a medical impairment, or that he was regarded as suffering from such impairment. Obesity in and of itself is a physical characteristic and not an impairment. The plaintiff never produced evidence that the employer based its transfer decision over fear of a medical condition, and he based his claim solely on the safety analysis.
The court concluded that this interpretation is consistent with EEOC guidance on this point. It also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the medical community now considers obesity to be a disease and a physiological disorder even in the absence of any related health complications. Employers faced with accommodation requests or claims by obese employees should analyze the specific circumstances to determine if the situation involves underlying medical issues, or only the impact of the employee’s weight on job performance.