Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Court of Appeals in the Seventh Circuit has recently decided a case involving an extremely obese bus driver and denied his claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101–12213, as amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), Pub. L. No. 110-325, 122 Stat. 3553. Richardson v Chicago Transit Authority, No 17-3508 & 18-2199 (7th Cir. June 12, 2019).
In this case a former Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus operator alleged that the CTA took adverse action against him because of his extreme obesity in violation of the ADA. The district court disagreed, holding that “extreme obesity only qualifies as a disability under the ADA if it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition,” and granted CTA’s motion for summary judgment because the Plaintiff oﬀered no such evidence.
We have blogged previously about obesity in the workplace. See for instance Obesity is a Disability. Wait: Is Obesity a Disability?, Failure to Investigate and Fat-Shaming Permit Employment Claims to Proceed, “Weight Watchers”—Weight Discrimination in the Workplace, Obese Employees Gain Discrimination Protection, and “Weight” Of Authority Leads To Dismissal (And Sanctions) Based On “Frivolous” Disparate Impact Claim.
The Court here found that “at bottom, Richardson does not present any evidence suggesting an underlying physiological disorder or condition caused his extreme obesity. Without such evidence, we cannot call Richardson’s extreme obesity a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA and the EEOC regulation. Citing to Morriss v. BNSF Ry. Co., 817 F.3d 1104, 1112 (8th Cir. 2016) and EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d 436, 443 (6th Cir. 2006).
As to the Plaintiffs’ perceived impairment, “Richardson must present suﬃcient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to infer that CTA perceived his extreme obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. Richardson did not make this showing.”
The Court affirmed the lower court’s opinion.
Take Aways For Employers: While this case is a check in the “win” category for the defense bar, it is (and as all others are) unique on its facts. As the Seventh Circuit also noted: “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.” Having said that, employers should be cautious not to take this as a sign that all obesity cases will be ripe for dismissal in this jurisdiction. With a different set of facts, or where an underlying disorder or condition does lead to an employee’s obesity condition, the ADA protections would still apply. (Recall that with the amendment of the ADA, effective ten years ago(‼)) – “always attempt accommodation” is still a good rule of thumb for any covered employer.)
For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Counseling & Solutions Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.