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When is Obesity a Disability under the ADA?

Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act poses difficult challenges for employers, and one of the toughest issues to come along in recent years is how to deal with obese employees. Thanks to a new decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the law appears to be settling on the principle that obesity only qualifies as a disability under the ADA if it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. That is good news for employers.

Since Congress expanded the ADA in 2008, employees have been able to qualify as disabled without the need to show that their condition “severely restricted” a major life activity. Also, an employer may regard an employee as having a disability even if the employer does not perceive the employee’s condition as substantially limiting a major life activity. This statutory change opened the door for many obese employees to assert discrimination or failure to accommodate claims.

Several federal trial courts initially accepted the argument that extreme obesity is an ADA impairment even without evidence of a physiological cause. But as some of these cases have reached the appellate courts, employers have begun to prevail on this issue. All four appellate courts to issue rulings on this question now agree that obesity is an ADA impairment only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition.

The newest case, Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, involved a bus driver whose 400 plus pound weight qualified him as extremely obese. He sued after the CTA terminated his employment because he exceeded the weight requirement to operate a bus safely. This case has been closely watched because it became the focus of efforts by scientific professional organizations and patient advocacy groups to assert that obesity is understood as a disease in the medical community and under various federal and state policies. As such, they claimed that obesity in and of itself must be treated as a physiological disorder.

The court rejected these arguments because the ADA is a discrimination law, not a public health statute. Since almost 40 percent of the American adult population qualifies as obese, the court was concerned that automatically classifying obesity as an ADA impairment would lead to nonrealistic results.

The growing consensus by the courts on this issue does not mean that employers are off the hook. In many cases, obese employees will be able to show some physiological cause for their condition. Alternatively, they may be able to establish their status as having a disability based upon related diseases or other problems that their obesity creates such as knee and joint problems or substantial limitations on major life activities such as climbing and bending.

Employees may also qualify as having a disability if their employers regard them as being disabled. Prejudice and stereotypes involving overweight individuals can wind up giving an employee protected status under the ADA even when an actual disability is lacking. Employers should be sensitive to this risk and make sure that their decision making process is not subject to attack on this basis.

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