The answer to the question of whether morbid obesity is a disability continues to be: “sometimes.” Because a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver who weighed over 500 pounds offered no evidence of any underlying physiological disorder or condition that caused his severe obesity, a federal district court in Illinois denied his motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether his obesity constituted a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). And because he did not allege a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA, he failed to show that the transit authority regarded him as having a qualifying physical impairment. Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, C.A. No. 16-cv-3027 (N.D.Ill. November 13, 2017).
When reviewing charges that claim “morbid obesity” as a disability, courts have historically required a showing that the obesity be linked to another physiological condition. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d 436, 442-43 (6th Cir. 2006); Francis v. City of Meriden, 129 F.3d 281, 286 (2d Cir. 1997); Coleman v. Georgia Power, 81 F.Supp.2d 1365, 1369-71 (N.D. Ga. 2000).
However, federal courts have sometimes allowed claims to go to trial where the employee alleged that their obesity was a disability without the presence of a physiological condition. For example, in Chavez v. Adams Cnty. Sch. Dist. No. 50, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49078 (D. Colo. Apr. 12, 2016), the plaintiff survived summary judgment on her hostile work environment claim that included claims related to her obesity. In EEOC v. Res. for Human Dev., 827 F.Supp 2d 688 (E.D. La. 2011), the court reasoned that obesity alone was an impairment under the ADA, and in Lowe v. Am. Eurocopter, LLC, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133343 (N.D. Miss. 2010), the plaintiff’s claim survived a motion to dismiss where she alleged discrimination based only upon her morbid obesity, which affected her ability to walk.
In Richardson, a medical evaluation performed by the employer’s doctors showed that the employee weighed over 550 pounds and his weight lead to a temporary assignment to a work area for employees with a medical diagnosis that they are unable to perform their job duties. The employee ultimately received medical clearance to return to work but the employer found that he could not safely perform his job as a bus driver. The employer made the following findings: he had to lean against the bus while performing the pre-trip inspection, he was sweating and appeared unhealthy during the inspection, he could not turn the bus’s steering wheel because of his stomach and could not place his feet on the gas and brake pedal at the same time because of his size. In light of these safety issues, the employer did not reinstate the employee.
The Court dismissed the case and held that obesity that is unrelated to another psychological condition is not an impairment under the ADA. The Court explained that because EEOC regulations clearly limit the definition of a physical impairment to a “physiological disorder or condition” that affects “one or more body systems,” a physical characteristic such as obesity, whether actual or perceived, must still be the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition to qualify as an impairment under the ADA. Here, because there was no evidence that the employee’s obesity resulted from any underlying physiological disorder or condition, he failed to show that the employer violated the ADA by discriminating against him on the basis of his obesity.
PLDO’s experienced employment law attorneys and litigators can answer any questions concerning this issue for you or your organization. Please contact PLDO Partner Matthew C. Reeber at 401-824-5100 or email [email protected] for more information. We welcome your comments, questions or suggestions.