ADA Compliance for Employers: When Is Obesity a Disability?


With obesity impacting such a large percentage of the population—recent data indicates that more than one third of Americans are obese—employers are facing a barrage of questions regarding their responsibilities to obese employees and job applicants. This post will review the basic provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and some legal background to this particular issue, then conclude with how employers can maintain compliance with the ADA when it comes to obesity.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled individuals who are otherwise qualified for a given position; these are defined as applicants or employees who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

Since 2008, when Congress expanded the ADA, employees have been able to qualify as disabled without proving that their condition “severely restricted” a significant life activity. This statutory change created an opportunity for many obese employees to claim discrimination or failure to make accommodations. Initially, several federal trial courts accepted extreme obesity as an ADA impairment virtually without limitation.

Legal History

Eventually, when some of these ADA cases regarding obesity reached appellate courts, rulings began to fall on the side of employers. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that obesity only qualifies as a disability under the ADA if it has a more serious root cause—a physiological disorder or other condition.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that obesity qualifies as an impairment under the ADA in some circumstances, but not all. The EEOC excludes normal physical characteristics from the term “impairment”—it doesn’t include things like skin or hair color, left-handedness, or height and weight that are within normal ranges and not the result of physiological disorders. Impairment also does not include common personality traits such as a quick temper or poor concentration, as long as these are not symptoms of a bona-fide mental or physiological disorder.

Case Study

Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority is a recent case involving a bus driver who was terminated because his extreme weight exceeded the weight requirement to safely operate a bus. This case became the focus of efforts by patient advocacy and scientific organizations to assert that obesity is considered a disease, medically and legally. As such, the claim was that obesity inherently must be considered a physiological disorder.

The court rejected these arguments on the basis that the ADA is a discrimination law, not a public health statute. The court was concerned that automatically classifying obesity as a disability would make ADA compliance unrealistic.

Implications for Employers

Despite the courts’ recent rulings in favor of employers on this issue, employers still need to be careful. Many employees will be able to prove a physiological cause, or establish their disabled status based on diseases or other problems related to their obesity—such as heart problems, knee and joint issues, or limitations on everyday activities such as climbing and bending. In these situations, the ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who are otherwise qualified for the job.

Employees may also qualify as disabled if their employers consider them disabled—so prejudice and stereotyping can end up giving an employee protected status under the ADA, even if an actual disability doesn’t exist. Employers should be aware of this risk to ensure their actions are not subject to attack on this basis. As always, if questions arise, don’t hesitate to contact legal counsel early, before you find yourself in a risky legal situation.


Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations