The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently ruled in Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority that extreme obesity does not constitute a disability unless it is accompanied by an underlying physiological disorder.
In that case, a bus driver in Chicago, who weighed nearly 600 pounds, alleged that his employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against him because of his morbid obesity. He alleged that obesity is a disability under the ADA.
However, according to his employer, because the plaintiff was so heavy, he exceeded the weight limit for safely operating a bus. The mass transit operator alleged that it was justified in taking adverse actions against the employee.
The Second, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits have also held that obesity is not a disability under the ADA or the EEOC's interpretive guidance. However, the EEOC and other courts have ruled that extreme obesity does qualify an individual for ADA protection. Melissa Legault "Seventh Circuit: Obesity Alone Is Not A Disability Under the ADA (US)" natlawreview.com (Jun. 17, 2019).
Commentary and Checklist
Whether the issue is morbid obesity or another disability, what family employers should avoid is any reaction that is not well-thought out when a staff member has an issue that interferes with his or her ability to perform the job.
It is important to always engage in an interactive process with a staff member who requests a reasonable accommodation. Simply failing to engage in the process to determine if there is a disability that requires a reasonable accommodation and what that accommodation would be can subject a family employer to liability.
Reasonable accommodation is defined as "any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities." Accommodations generally fall into the following three categories: modifications to the application process; modifications to the work environment or the way the job is customarily performed; and modifications regarding providing benefits and privileges of employment.
Of course, family employers are not required by law to provide accommodation if doing so would cause them undue hardship. That said, anytime you can accommodate a staff member, even if it is inconvenient, you reduce your risk of a lawsuit and likely improve the work of the staffer.
Remember, even if a court ultimately rules in your favor in a disability discrimination suit, you could still owe thousands of dollars in legal expenses, and you will have spent considerable time lost fighting the suit. Taking a broad interpretation of "disability" and trying your best to provide accommodation to applicants and staff is the best practice.
Family employers should consider following these tips for handing accommodation requests and consult with a licensed qualified attorney for specific legal advice as well:
- When presented with an accommodation request, evaluate in an interactive process the limitations, if any, that the disability creates for the applicant or staffer, and how the limitations affect the individual's ability to perform the essential functions of the job, if at all.
- Identify specific job tasks that may be problematic as a result of these limitations.
- Consider recommendations provided by the individual's health care provider.
- Once accommodations are in place, meet with the staff member and others to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations. Determine whether additional accommodations are needed.