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U.S. Court of Appeals Rules Extreme Obesity Not a Disability; What Small Business Owners Need to Know

In Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, the plaintiff (former employee) filed under the federal employment anti-discrimination law with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). The national employment anti-discrimination law covers an employee or applicant with a disability. The law also prohibits discrimination based on sexual identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, race, color, religion, and genetic information.

For an employee to prove an employer has discriminated against them due to a disability, the employee has to provide proof that they have a disability the employer knew about or that the employer perceived they had a disability and that they experienced discriminatory behavior on the job because of it. In addition, to succeed on an ADA claim under federal law, employees must prove they are qualified to perform the job functions with or without reasonable accommodations made by the employer.

Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority

A recent court case, Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit court, found that obesity is not recognized under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) unless caused by an underlying condition or a physiological disorder.

In the case, the plaintiff, a bus operator for the Chicago Transit Authority, attempted to return to work on February 19th after an absence due to a flu virus. However, the CTA's provider concluded that the driver was not fit to return, citing uncontrolled hypertension, a weight of 400 pounds, and influenza.

On April 9ththe bus driver was placed on Temporary Medical Disability, commonly referred to as "Area 605." The CTA describes 'Area 605' as an assignment given to eligible union employees who are found medically unfit to perform the essential duties of their jobs because of an injury or illness.

In September of 201,0, CTA's third-party medical provider, Advanced Occupational Medicine Services ("AOMS"), found the employee physically fit to return to work. However, AOMS also cited that the driver must also clear safety requirements before operating a bus.

To clear safety requirements with the Chicago Transit Authority, drivers must submit to a 'special assessment' conducted by bus instructors. Then, to return to their jobs, drivers must perform all standard operating procedures on all six types of buses belonging to the Chicago Transit Authority.

On September 2010, the driver submitted to the assessment and was deemed unfit based on the bus instructor's observations and findings.

Instead of termination, the driver was placed back on temporary medical disability status to work with a doctor to control his weight and hypertension. In October 2011, the driver was informed of his two-year inactive status and could extend his inactive status for another year by submitting medical documentation.

Since the plaintiff submitted no documentation, he was terminated by the CTA in February 2012.

The plaintiff filed a discrimination suit after the EEOC issued a Right to Sue letter.

What Small Business Owners and Employers Need to Know

This court case might have had a different outcome had the employee filed documentation to extend his temporary medical disability. The medical documentation needed to develop his temporary medical disability benefits could have provided evidence that the employee had a medical condition or physiological disorder.

The takeaway for business employers is that physical characteristics alone do not make or break a potential claim for disability discrimination. To avoid potential lawsuits, employers must review what constitutes 'physical impairment' under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). An employee or even an applicant can request a reasonable accommodation if it also affects their medical treatment. Further, an employer's perception that an employee has a disability is sufficient to raise a claim.

In the Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority case, the court found that 'physical impairment' can include obesity ONLY if it results from an underlying condition or physiological disorder, such as Cushing's syndrome.

How Small Businesses and Employers Can Prevent Potential Discrimination Claims

The best action for any small business is to be educated on anti-discrimination laws for disability and what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. Small businesses and employers can access state and federal resources to help stay compliant. We provide some helpful tips below. Small businesses can also check out the resources and outreach programs offered by the EEOC.

  1. Understand that the anti-discrimination law based on disability applies to people who may not always be affected by their medical condition. For instance, the rule applies to people with epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The law also applies to people who have had medical conditions.

  2. A small business owner cannot request medical or genetic information from applicants, and business owners can only ask for that information from employees in certain circumstances. In addition, all medical documents legally obtained by an employer must be held strictly confidential.

  3. An employer may be asked to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee or applicant because of their disability. Providing reasonable accommodations means changing how something is done at work. For example, an employee may ask for more breaks due to a condition, ask for leave for their weekly physical rehabilitation, or request changes to a specific work situation. An employer can comply as long as it does not require a huge expense or a lowering of production or job standards.

  4. Small Business owners must handle each request individually and not assume they cannot afford to accommodate the request.

  5. Employers should provide training to help managers and supervisors identify and correctly handle accommodation requests within the law's requirements.

  6. Small business owners should create a process or policy to handle requests for accommodations that encourages open communication about what employees need to be successful at their job or what applicants need to apply for a position.

  7.  See if an alternative is available if an employer cannot provide for the employee's or applicant's preferred accommodation.

  8. Employers should document all accommodation requests, primarily if you cannot provide an employee's or applicant's preferred or first request for a specific accommodation.

Let us help you navigate the tricky considerations related to FMLA, obesity at work, and reasonable accommodations. Natalie Lynch has years of experience working with employers to make the right decisions for their workforces. 

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