Imagine you are a human resources professional or in-house employment counsel and you learn that an employee in your organization is seeking a job transfer or other accommodation because with a body weight of almost 600 pounds, he is too overweight to do his present job. What do you do?
A recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit highlights how courts across the country have interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in workplace situations involving obesity. If a workplace challenge relating to obesity hasn’t happened in your organization yet, it is increasingly likely to happen soon. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that rates of American adults with obesity have continued to increase over the past decade according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Their findings comport with a trend line dating back to the 1980s. With that trend in mind, let’s examine Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, 926 F.3d 881 (7th Cir. 2019).
Mark Richardson worked as a bus driver for 13 years. In September of 2010, weighing nearly 600 pounds, Richardson required to undergo a safety assessment following a medical leave. During the assessment, he was unable to perform several safety driving functions (for example, hand-over-hand steering) because of his obesity. Richardson argued under the ADA and related agency regulations and guidance that severe obesity should automatically qualify as an ADA impairment, without having to show any other underlying physiological cause.
The Seventh Circuit disagreed and found Richardson’s interpretation of the ADA and its regulations to be overbroad. Instead, the court held that an individual’s weight is generally a physical characteristic, not a physical impairment. Obesity qualifies as a physical impairment only if the individual’s body weight falls outside the normal range and occurs as a result of another physiological disorder. With this holding, the Seventh Circuit joined sister circuits in the Second, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits. Other jurisdictions, however, have reached different conclusions, and this issue remains an unsettled area of the ADA.
State disability laws further complicate the issue of whether obesity qualifies as a disability. For example, the Third Circuit has not determined categorically whether obesity is a disability that substantially limits a major life activity under the ADA. See, for example, Lescoe v. Pa. Dept. of Corr., 464 Fed.Appx. 50, 53 (3d Cir. 2012). But Pennsylvania state law seems to follow the Richardson line of reasoning in, Philadelphia Electric Co. v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, 68 Pa.Cmwlth. 212, 448 A.2d 701 (1982). On the other coast, however, in 2019, the Washington Supreme Court held that obesity always qualifies as an impairment under Washington state law. See Taylor v. Burlington N. R.R. Holdings, Inc., 444 P.3d 606, 608 (Wash. 2019).
The Richardson decision, despite its employer-favorable ruling, highlights the caution employers must take when making employment decisions involving obese workers. Obesity is often found in conjunction with other conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease, any of which may constitute impairments under the ADA. For that reason, the applicability of Richardson may be limited to a particular set of circumstances. And state laws could also differ from interpretations of the ADA in a given jurisdiction. In this unsettled area of disability law, it is important to proceed with caution.