The ADA Does Not Protect Future Impairments.


The Americans with Disabilities Act “plainly encompasses only current impairments, not future ones,” according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, which is defined as (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.

In Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., an applicant for a safety-sensitive railway job was rejected after a post-offer, pre-employment medical evaluation revealed that he was obese. The company does not hire obese applicants for such positions because they are at a substantially higher risk of developing certain medical conditions like sleep apnea, diabetes, and heart disease, which can result in unpredictable and sudden incapacitation. Those individuals could thus experience an unpredictable medical episode that causes loss of consciousness while operating dangerous equipment.

The Seventh Circuit first reiterated that obesity alone does not constitute a disability under the ADA, unless it is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition, which was not present here. It went on to address “whether the ADA’s regarded-as provision encompasses conduct motivated by the likelihood that an employee will develop a future disability within the scope of the ADA.” According to the Seventh Circuit, it does not and, in so holding, the Seventh Circuit joins the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits and rejects the Equal Employment Opportunity’s position. The Seventh Circuit looked to the plain language of the statute, which is written in the present tense and thus encompasses only current disabilities and not future ones.