The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a recent decision (June 12, 2019) in the case of Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority has joined the Second, Sixth and Eighth Circuit in finding that Obesity, standing alone, is not an impairment under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) absent an underlying psychological cause. This is an extremely important decision based on the fact that it is estimated that forty (40) percent of the current adult population is dealing with obesity.
In this ever-litigious society of ours, it is comforting to see reason prevail on occasion, and the court's recent decision in Summers v. Target Corporation, Case No. 18-C-32 (E.D. Wis. 2019) is a good example. In Summers, an employee contended that his supervisor caused him anxiety, stress, palpitations and panic disorders, for which he was prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. He took a medical leave and his therapist recommended that he be transferred to another location (and hence, a new supervisor) as an accommodation of his condition. When Target refused, he resigned and sued for failure to accommodate under the ADA.
I am fairly certain that a number of readers of this article will have been on airlines or in restaurants where they have observed individuals being allowed to have "service animals" accompany them on their trip or their restaurant excursion. It is not surprising that the issue of service animals in the workplace is now becoming more common and potentially raising issues that an employer must address.
Administering employee leaves of absence is complicated. For employers of 50 or more employees there obviously are the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and D.O.L. regulations to deal with. Then there is the EEOC, which has interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to require leaves of absence, or extending them under certain circumstances as a reasonable accommodation of an individual's disability. Add worker compensation laws that provide for reinstatement of employees following a work-related illness or injury, as well as an ever growing list of other federal, state and, more recently, local laws governing what employers may or may not do about employee absences and even the most experienced HR professionals have their hands full. Monitoring FMLA leave (especially intermittent leave), work-related absences, military leave, leave as an accommodation and all the legalities of when and how to return workers from such leaves, can be overwhelming. Not surprisingly, many employers have turned to outsourcing these functions, ostensibly to avoid all the hassles and legal pitfalls they present. However, as a recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision demonstrates all too clearly, turning these responsibilities over to a third party does not rid an employer of responsibility, or liability, for complying with the many workplace leave laws that are at play.
"The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement." These are the words employers have been waiting more than 25 years to hear, since the date the ADA first became effective, and even more so after the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993. They address an issue that has vexed employers since day one; that is, whether the duty to accommodate requires an employer to provide an extended medical leave after an employee has exhausted all of the medical leave available to him under the FMLA. The EEOC has vigorously contended that it does, particularly where the proposed leave is of a definite, time limited duration; requested in advance; and, likely to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his job upon his return. On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals flatly rejected the EEOC's contention.
Since I was a child back in the early 1950s, I was taught many things by my parents, including "treat others as you want to be treated" and "do not steal or take other people's property." Obviously, the Federal Court System and, specifically, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick, have either never been taught these rules or they have conveniently been forgotten!