- Obesity is a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held, joining three other circuits (Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, Nos. 17-3508 & 18-2199 (7th Cir. June 12, 2019)).
- A 566-pound driver for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) failed several aspects of a required return-to-work safety assessment following a flu-related absence; he also was found to be over the seat manufacturer's maximum weight of 400 pounds. CTA put the driver on temporary medical disability. After two years on inactive status, the driver did not submit the medical documentation required to extend the status for another year, and he was terminated.
- The plaintiff filed suit, alleging disability discrimination, and a district court granted summary judgment for CTA. He appealed, and the 7th Circuit upheld the lower court's ruling. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines physical impairment as a "physiological disorder or condition," it noted. It would be "directly contrary to that definition" to consider a physical characteristic such as weight — even weight outside a "normal" range — a physical impairment absent evidence of an underlying physiological condition, the 7th Circuit said.
The treatment of obesity under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is not uniformly settled around the country. In this case, the 7th Circuit became the fourth of the circuit courts, along with what it called a "majority" of district courts, to conclude that obesity is not a protected disability unless it is the result of an underlying disorder or condition.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) notes that individuals with obesity may develop some job-related limitations, with the degree of limitation varying from person to person. The organization provides suggestions for possible accommodations and recommends that employers consider (among other factors) the specific limitations an employee is experiencing, how those limitations affect the employee and his or her job performance, and whether training for supervisors and employees would be beneficial.
JAN's list of possible obesity-related accommodations includes the provision of large-rated or ergonomic equipment, anti-fatigue mats, telework, job restructuring or periodic rest breaks.
Additionally, training may help prevent overt or unconscious bias based on weight. According to a recent Harvard University study, implicit bias based on body weight increased by 40% from 2004 to 2010. Weight was the only characteristic among six studied that showed an increase in bias.