On June 12, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer in an action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), in which the plaintiff, a CTA bus driver, alleged that the CTA took adverse employment action against him because of his extreme obesity, in violation of the ADA. Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, Nos. 17-3508 & 18-2199 (7th Cir. June 12, 2019). The Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court, that extreme obesity only qualifies as a disability under the ADA if it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. To succeed on an ADA claim, an employee must show: (1) she is disabled; (2) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the adverse employment action was caused by her disability.
The ADA defines disability as: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. The plaintiff based his ADA claim on the ‘regarded as’ prong. To prevail, he must establish that he was subjected to a prohibited employment action because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment, whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity. At issue was whether the plaintiff demonstrated either: (1) his extreme obesity is an actual impairment; or (2) the defendant perceived his extreme obesity to be an impairment.
Congress has not defined ‘impairment.’ EEOC regulations, however, define physical impairment as any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine. EEOC regulations interpreting the ADA are entitled to deference by the courts, unless they are arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute. The parties disagreed about whether the plaintiff”s extreme obesity–even without evidence of an underlying physiological condition–meets the definition of physical impairment and is therefore an actionable disability under the ADA. This is a question of first impression for the Seventh Circuit. However, the Eighth, Sixth, and Second Circuits have considered the question, and each held that obesity is an ADA impairment only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition. The Seventh Circuit joined the Second, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits and held that without evidence that the plaintiff’s extreme obesity was caused by a physiological disorder or condition, his obesity is not a physical impairment under the ADA. The plaintiff did not present any evidence suggesting an underlying physiological disorder or condition caused his extreme obesity. Absent such evidence, his extreme obesity is not a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA and the EEOC regulation.
The plaintiff also argued that even if extreme obesity is not itself an impairment, he is still disabled under the ADA because the defendant perceived his obesity to be a physical impairment. To prevail on this claim, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant took adverse employment action against him based on the belief that his condition was an impairment–as the ADA defines the term–not merely based on knowledge of his physical characteristic. He must present evidence sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to infer that the defendant perceived his extreme obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. He did not make this evidentiary showing. There was no evidence that the defendant believed that his excessive weight was caused by a physiological disorder or condition. To the contrary, the evidence suggested that the defendant perceived the plaintiff’s weight as a physical characteristic that made it unsafe for him to drive a bus. These facts do not permit a finding that the defendant regarded the plaintiff as disabled for purposes of ADA liability.