For the first time, the 7th Circuit has directly addressed the question of whether obesity is a “physical impairment” that qualifies as a disability under the ADA. Consistent with the Second, Sixth, and Eighth circuit courts’ holdings, the 7th Circuit held in Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority that “obesity is an ADA impairment only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition.” Although this ruling clarifies that not every obese person is being protected under the ADA, it does leave the waters muddy for employers who must consider whether an employee’s obesity is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition before making employment decisions.
Mark Richardson worked as a full-time bus driver for Chicago Transit Authority (“CTA”) from August 1999 until February 2012. In February 2010, Richardson was absent from work due to the flu. Upon his return, CTA’s third-party medical provider documented that Richardson suffered from a variety of conditions, in addition to weighing more than the CTA bus seat limit of 400 pounds. In April, CTA transferred Richardson to its Temporary Medical Disability-Area 605 (“605”), an area described as a budgetary assignment for employees found medically unfit for their job classification due to illness or injury. Although Richardson was given two years in 605 to prove his ability to operate the busses and to comply with the seat’s weight accommodation, he failed to do both. CTA offered to extend his time in 605 if Richardson submitted medical documentation. When he did not, CTA terminated his employment.
Richardson filed a lawsuit against CTA, alleging that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by firing him for being too obese to operate a bus. The district court granted summary judgment for CTA, agreeing with its argument that Richardson had failed to show his obesity qualified as a protected physical impairment under the ADA. Richardson appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.