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Employee Can Proceed on ADA Claim That He Was Discriminated Against on Account of Severe Obesity

By on January 13, 2017 in Key Defenses with 0 Comments

Mark Richardson worked for the Chicago Transit Authority as a Bus Operator from 1999 to 2012.  He took an extended medical leave from work and attempted to return to his job in September 2010.  The Authority sent plaintiff for a fitness exam, and the doctor cleared Richardson to return to work. He was next required to submit to a safety assessment, which he contended turned out to be different than the normal safety assessment required of bus operators.

The Authority eventually rejected Plaintiff’s request to return to work.  Plaintiff then filed a charge with the EEOC, stating that the Authority discriminated against him based his disability, namely severe obesity.  After the parties were not able to resolve the charge, plaintiff sued in federal court.

Defendant Transit Authority moved to dismiss the case right away before doing any discovery by arguing that the plaintiff’s complaint was fatally flawed.  The Authority argued that obesity is not a disability unless it is due to a physiological disorder and further contended that since plaintiff never alleged that there was a physiological basis for his obesity, his complaint must be dismissed.

The Court noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 expanded coverage under the ADA.  The Court reflected on 42 U.S.C. 12102(3)(A), which states:

An individual is ‘regarded as having such an impairment’ if the individual is subjected to a prohibited action because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment, whether or not that impairment substantially limits, or is perceived to substantially limit, a major life activity.

The Court also reviewed conflicting decisions nationally on the question of whether a plaintiff must prove a physiological basis for obesity to establish a disability.  It observed that there is a split among Circuit Courts on what is required for obesity to be considered a covered disability.  Some Circuit Courts have required proof of a physiological basis for obesity while others have not.

In this case the Court did not decide which approach was right, but it said that “[e]ven if Plaintiff is ultimately required to prove that his obesity was caused by a physiological disorder, he was not required to allege the same.”  In other words, plaintiff’s complaint was sufficient to allow him to move forward with discovery and to attempt to prove his case.

The case can be found at Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143485 (N.D. Ill. 2016).  It is an interesting case because obesity claims are likely to become a major area of litigation given both the near epidemic levels of obesity in the United States and the expansion of coverage of disability under the ADAAA.

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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