In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held that obesity is not a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) unless a plaintiff can demonstrate that it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. With the decision, the Seventh Circuit brought clarity to a novel issue previously unresolved for employers in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The holding brings the Seventh Circuit in line with decisions on the issue from the Second Circuit, Sixth Circuit, and Eight Circuit.
Mark Richardson was a full-time bus operator for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) when his weight increased from 350 pounds to 566 pounds. In February 2010, Richardson took leave from work because he had the flu. Subsequently, a medical provider determined that Richardson should not return to work until he gained control of his blood pressure. CTA then classified Richardson as medically unfit to perform the essential functions of his job.
In September 2010, CTA’s third-party medical provider deemed Richardson physically fit to return to work and CTA’s assessors concluded that Richardson could drive CTA’s buses safely. However, they also noted several safety concerns. After CTA concluded that it would be unsafe for Richardson to operate a bus, it classified him as medically unfit again. Eventually, CTA terminated Richardson’s employment in February 2012.
Richardson filed suit under the ADA against CTA. He alleged that CTA had unlawfully refused to allow him to return to work because it regarded him as too obese to work as a bus operator. Ultimately, the district court granted CTA’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Richardson had not presented evidence that an underlying physiological disorder or condition had caused his obesity.
The Seventh Circuit’s Analysis
The Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court, holding that Richardson’s obesity was not a protected disability under the ADA because he had not presented evidence that a physiological disorder or condition caused it. The court relied on the definition of physical or mental impairment found at 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1) to conclude that absent evidence of an underlying physiological disorder or condition, the court declined to recognize obesity as a disability protected by the ADA.
Richardson argued that his obesity was a protected disability under the ADA following the passage of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). According to the court, while the ADAAA broadened the definition of the terms “substantially limits” and “major life activity,” it had not instructed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to alter its definition of “impairment.”
The court was also unpersuaded by Richardson’s reading of EEOC interpretive guidance and rejected Richardson’s “perceived disability” claim because he did not introduce evidence that any individual at CTA believed a physiological disorder or condition caused his obesity.
The Richardson decision highlights that courts are not warm to the EEOC’s view of obesity as an impairment rising to the level of a disability under the ADA even where not caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. However, employers may still want to proceed cautiously when considering taking adverse action against an obese employee since Richardson does not entirely eliminate obesity as a protected disability under the ADA. The ADA may protect an employee if there is an underlying physiological disorder or condition that causes the obesity or an employer believes that an underlying physiological disorder or condition causes the employee’s obesity and that disorder, condition, or belief motivates the employer’s adverse action.
Additionally, employers may want to keep in mind that state and local laws may define “disability” differently than the ADA. For example, a state law may not require that an impairment result from a physiological disorder. Thus, while obesity may not qualify for legal protection under the ADA, it may be a protected category under a local jurisdiction.
Written by Eric E. Hobbs and Jesse R. Dill of Ogletree Deakins
© 2019 Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.