Federal Courts Have Diminishing Appetite For Claims Of Obesity Discrimination

Food & Drink

Many workplaces are sponsoring festive holiday parties this time of year, featuring a array of chips, candies, Christmas cookies and cakes.  

But workers who eat this fattening fare do so at their own peril.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which is based in Chicago, joined three other federal circuits earlier this year in a ruling that limits the protection of extremely obese workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA prohibits discrimination against employees and job applicants who have physical or mental impairments that substantially limit “major life activities.”

Four federal circuits now have ruled that obesity is not a qualified impairment under the ADA unless it is shown to be the result of an underlying “physiological disorder or condition.”  No federal circuit has issued a contrary ruling.

To prove discrimination, workers must show that their obesity resulted from an underlying physiological disorder or condition, such as diabetes.

The four circuits refused to defer to the EEOC’s interpretation that the ADA prohibits discrimination based on weight that is outside the “normal range” for an individual even if it is not the result of a physical impairment.

According to the three-judge panel for the 7th Circuit, the EEOC’s analysis is flawed because it can be read to mean “any employee whose weight – or other physical characteristic – is even slightly outside the ‘normal range’ would have a physical impairment even with no underlying physiological cause.” The panel said this could create an “automatic impairment” under the ADA for the up to 40 percent of the American adults who are overweight.

Not A Public Health Statute

The 7th Circuit panel also rejected the American Medical Association’s position that obesity is a disease that is in and of itself a physiological disorder. The panel said the ADA is “an anti discrimination – not a public health – statute, and Congress’ desires as it relates to the ADA do not necessarily align with those of the medical community.”

The 7th Circuit case, Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, involved a bus driver, Mark Richardson, whose weight rose from 350 pounds in 2005 to 566 pounds in 2009.  After taking sick leave for the flu, he was found medically unfit to safely drive a bus.

According to court documents, Richardson was forced to cross-pedal, meaning that his foot was on the gas and brake at the same time, and he was unable to make hand-over-hand turns. He could not see the floor of the bus and part of his body hung off the driver’s seat.  

Richardson submitted medical evidence showing that he suffered from hypertension and sleep apnea. He argued these conditions were “related” to his obesity. However, the 7th Circuit panel said that nothing in the court record suggested these conditions “caused” his obesity.

After two years of inactive status, Richardson declined to work with CTA doctors to lose weight and was fired in 2011.

Court Disregards Indigent Status

 The 7th Circuit in June upheld the lower court’s dismissal of Richardson’s lawsuit as well as the order requiring him to pay $ $2,067 in costs to the CTA. The 7th Circuit rejected Richardson’s argument that he is indigent and could not afford to pay the costs.

The judges on the 7th Circuit panel were Judge Joel M. Flaum, Michael S,  Kanne and Michael Y. Scudder, Jr. 

The other federal appeals courts in agreement with the 7th Circuit (WI, IL, IN) are the 8th Circuit (ND, SD, NE, MN, IA, MO and AR), the 2nd Circuit (NY) and the 6th Circuit (MI, OH, KY, TN).

 A recent  Gallup survey found that from 2010 to 2019 an average of 28 percent of Americans in the United States weighed 200 pounds or more, an increase of about 24 percent from the prior decade. Gallup said 38 percent of Americans, on average, say they are very or somewhat overweight this decade, compared with 41% in the previous decade.

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