The Seventh and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal recently joined the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, in holding that individuals with no current disability cannot be regarded as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The mere possibility or even likelihood the individual will develop an impairment or disability in the future is not sufficient to sustain a cause of action under the ADA. In Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., 941 F.3d 331 (7th Cir. 2019) and EEOC v. STME, LLC, 938 F.3d 1305 (11th Cir. 2019) the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits respectively, refused to extend protections under the ADA to employees with a “perceived risk” of potential impairment.
In Shell, a transportation company refused to hire a job applicant with a body mass index (BMI) over 40, which is classified as Class III Obesity or “extreme” or “severe” obesity. The Defendant had a policy that prohibited individuals with a BMI over 40 from being employed in “safety-sensitive” positions, due to individuals with Class III Obesity being at an increased risk for sleep apnea, diabetes, or heart disease, conditions that could lead to dangerous consequences while on the job. The Seventh Circuit first noted that obesity in and of itself does not qualify as a disability under the ADA, unless it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. Likewise, obesity alone does not qualify as a disability even if the individual’s obesity may increase the likelihood that he or she will develop a future qualifying ADA disabling impairment. The condition of being “regarded as” having an impairment applies when an individual has been subjected to an impairment, in a past or present sense, not a perceived future impairment that has not yet occurred. Thus, the Seventh Circuit held that since Defendant only declined to hire the Plaintiff based on a perceived future impairment and not a current ADA disability, the ADA did not afford protection to the Plaintiff.
The employer in STME fired an employee who had traveled to Ghana during an Ebola outbreak in countries neighboring Ghana, even after the employer raised concerns about the Plaintiff making such a trip. The employer’s decision was based on a potential future impairment, which is not protected by the ADA under the “regarded as” theory of recovery, which requires a current impairment. The potential physical or perceived impairment of Ebola was not enough to get ADA protection; the Eleventh Circuit found there was no violation of the ADA in the firing of the Plaintiff.
Both cases demonstrate a continued trend at the appellate level of federal courts that future or potential impairments are not protected under the ADA. This should be good news to employers who have concerns about potential impairments with employees and whether they feel such concerns could impact the ability for that employee to perform their job functions.
VW Contributor: Ryan J. Coufal
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