Alcoholism, But Not Obesity, Considered Impairment Under ADA

By: Storrs Downey and Jessica Jackler

In a case of first impression in the 7th Circuit, the court held that obesity is not considered an impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) unless that condition is due to an underlying “physiological disorder of condition.” Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, No. 17-3508 (7th Cir. 6/12/19).

The plaintiff in Richardson was a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).  His reported weight was 566 lbs. in 2009. He was not allowed to return to work in 2010 after it was determined that he could not safely operate a CTA bus. The CTA enforced the manufacturer’s policy which provided a maximum 400 lbs. weight limit, among other things.

Plaintiff was temporarily moved to an administrative position after failing to provide medical documentation of the need to remain in this position for one additional year. 

CTA gave the plaintiff the opportunity to treat with doctors to lose weight and be subject to periodic monitoring. Plaintiff declined this request. As a result, he was terminated in 2012.

The 7th Circuit noted that other federal circuit courts had found obesity was not an impairment under the ADA, unless due to a physiological disorder or condition. Plaintiff did not present any evidence that this was the situation with him.

Plaintiff also unsuccessfully argued that he was still disabled under the ADA as his employer perceived him as disabled.  The court, however, found the same reasoning as with an actual impairment applied: plaintiff would need to show that the employer believed plaintiff’s obesity constituted a physical impairment that “was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or conditions.”  Again, no such evidence was presented by plaintiff.

In a separate decision by the 7th Circuit, it reversed the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit by a former employee of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (“District”). The former employee claimed that he was fired, in part, because he is allegedly disabled by alcoholism and that he was regarded as disabled by the District. In Freeman v. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, No. 18-3737 (7th Cir. 2019), the court found that the lower court erred in dismissing the employee’s lawsuit on the basis that he failed to state a cause of action. The lower court stated his complaint lacked specificity about how his alleged alcoholism substantially limited major life activity or caused his termination.

The court found that this standard was too high and that the employee presented plausible arguments for his case to continue, but not necessarily to prevail. For example, the court found that the employee properly alleged that the District regarded him as an alcoholic, impairing his ability to perform a broad class of jobs, and therefore a jury could conclude that this perception of his impairment impacted a major life activity.

Practice Pointer: Employers should engage in an interactive process to determine whether there are reasonable accommodations which may allow the employee to perform his/her job functions. Engaging in an interactive process is likely the employer’s best means of avoiding liability for disability discrimination and failure to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee. As in Richardson, if the employee is not disabled or perceived to be disabled, the ADA and its requirements to accommodate would not apply.

Employers, however, should be careful to dismiss an employee’s request for accommodation if it is unsure of the underlying reason for an employee’s obesity or other health issues. Further, employers should keep in mind that alcoholism can be a disability under the ADA and employees who may be disabled because of alcoholism should not automatically be regarded as incapable of performing their jobs. Like with other types of disabilities, employers should engage in an interactive process to determine whether these employees can perform their essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodations.   

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