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Chicago bus driver plausibly alleged obesity discrimination under ADA

October 18th, 2016  |  Lorene Park

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

In an ADA suit by a bus driver whose employer allegedly refused to let him return to his job because it regarded him as disabled due to his obesity, a federal district court in Illinois denied the employer’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Though authority is split on whether a plaintiff alleging discrimination based on obesity must ultimately prove the obesity results from a physiological disorder, the employee was not required to allege a physiological cause in his complaint (Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, October 17, 2016, Blakey, J.).

The employee, who had worked as a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) since 1999, took medical leave in 2010. When he tried to return in September 2010, a CTA physician concluded that he was physically able. However, he was also given a “safety assessment” that was different from the one normally required of bus operators and his return was refused. Filing suit under the ADA, the employee claimed the CTA refused to let him return because it regarded him as disabled due to his obesity.

No “substantially limited” requirement. Denying the CTA’s motion to dismiss, the court first found, contrary to the CTA’s argument, that the employee was not required to plead that the CTA believed he had an impairment that limited one or more major life activities. Under the ADAAA, an individual is “regarded as” having an impairment if subjected to an action prohibited by the ADA based on an actual or perceived physical impairment whether or not the impairment is perceived to limit a major life activity.

Obesity may be an “impairment.” Also rejected was the CTA’s argument that the employee’s ADA claim must fail because obesity does not qualify as an impairment unless it both falls outside the normal range for weight and occurs as the result of a physiological disorder. Acknowledging a split of authority on whether such proof might ultimately be required, and deferring such an analysis for future resolution, the court explained that it was not something that had to be pleaded in the employee’s complaint to avoid dismissal.