Illinois Federal Court: Obesity Not a Qualifying Disability Under ADA

Lev Craig

This Monday, November 13, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, in which plaintiff Mark Richardson alleged that his former employer, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by terminating his employment because he was obese. The court held that, if not caused by an underlying physiological disorder or health condition, obesity in and of itself does not qualify as a disability under the ADA. As a result, Richardson was unable to show that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, and his ADA claim was dismissed.

Richardson began working for the CTA as a bus driver in 1999. In 2010, after Richardson took an extended medical leave, the CTA required him to undergo a medical exam and safety assessment before returning to work. At the time of the medical evaluation, Richardson weighed 594 pounds and, according to standardized height and weight medical guidelines, had a BMI of 82.8, meaning that he was medically considered to be “suffering from ‘extreme obesity.’” During the safety assessment, the CTA found that Richardson’s weight prevented him from complying with various CTA safety regulations; for example, Richardson could not perform hand-over-hand turning or stop “cross-pedaling”—having part of his foot on the gas and brake pedals at the same time—because of his size. The CTA later terminated Richardson’s employment, stating in a memo, “Based on the Bus Instructors [sic] observations and findings, the limited space in the driver’s area and the manufacturer [maximum allowable weight] requirements, it would unsafe for Bus Operator Richardson to operate any CTA bus at this time.”

After his termination, Richardson brought suit against the CTA in Illinois federal court, alleging that the CTA had violated the ADA by terminating his employment because of his obesity. After the CTA unsuccessfully moved to dismiss last year, Richardson moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether his obesity qualified as a disability under the ADA, and the CTA cross-moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Richardson could not establish that the CTA regarded him as disabled, as required to sustain his discrimination claim. The court denied Richardson’s motion and granted the CTA’s, dismissing Richardson’s claims.

To succeed, Richardson needed to demonstrate that “his obesity constitutes an actual physical impairment under the ADA or that the CTA perceived [him] to have a qualifying physical impairment.” While various federal courts have ruled on the issue of whether obesity is an ADA-qualifying disability, arriving at differing conclusions, no court in the Seventh Circuit had yet addressed the question before the Richardson decision. The court recognized that, while obesity by itself does not constitute a disability under the ADA, obesity can constitute a disability if it is caused by “some underlying physiological basis.” Relying on Francis v. City of Meriden—a Second Circuit decision involving a plaintiff whose employer suspended him for exceeding fire department weight guidelines—and the EEOC interpretative guidance, the court reasoned that “weight is not a physical impairment, and to hold otherwise would open up the ‘regarded as’ prong of the ADA ‘to a range of physical conditions—height, strength, dexterity, and left-handedness, for example—not meant to be covered’ by the Act.” But here, Richardson offered no evidence that his obesity was the result of any underlying disorder or condition; therefore, it was a physical characteristic, rather than a physical impairment. Accordingly, Richardson could not show that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, nor that the CTA had regarded him as disabled.

If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you on the basis of your disability, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.