ADA Ruling Finds Eating a "Major Life Activity"

April 5, 2001 ( - A federal appeals court has ruled that eating is a "major life activity", allowing a job applicant's suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to proceed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Lawson v. CSX Transportation Inc. held that a rejected job applicant, with insulin-dependent diabetes, had complicated dietary restrictions that substantially limited his eating habits, and substantiated an ADA action, according to BNA Daily Labor Report.

Plaintiff Lawson has had insulin-dependent diabetes since infancy. He manages the condition by monitoring blood sugar levels.  He typically tests his blood 4-6 times a day, and administers insulin injections three times daily. 

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Since graduation from high school, he had held only a few jobs of relatively short duration, receiving social security disability from 1986 to 1998.

However, in 1997, Social Security Administration personnel noted that Lawson’s medical condition seemed to be improving, and suggested he might be able to find steady employment.

A Steady Job

Lawson applied for the CSX Transportation company’s conductor trainee program, passing a series of physical and written tests. 

Although CSX hires approximately 98% of all successful program participants, Lawson did not get an offer.  A CSX manager said Lawson was not hired because his limited work history was not “solid or verifiable.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to obtain other employment, he then sued the company under the ADA. After he filed the lawsuit, CSX hired him for the conductor trainee job.

CSX moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that under the Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Lawson’s was not a covered disability under the ADA because it was mitigated by medication. A federal district court granted summary judgment to CSX.

Major Life Activity

The Seventh Circuit reversed the decision of the lower court, agreeing with plaintiff Lawson that eating is a major life activity, as much – or more so – than other activities listed by the EEOC, including:

  • caring for oneself
  • performing manual tasks
  • walking
  • seeing
  • hearing
  • speaking
  • breathing
  • learning
  • working

The Seventh Circuit also disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that Lawson would be substantially limited in his ability to eat only if his “actual physical ability to ingest food is restricted.”

The court noted that the severity of Lawson’s limitations differentiated his situation from that of others that follow simple dietary restrictions sometimes required by medical conditions.

Employer Actions

The court found that the CSX job description did not require a work history of any kind, and had in the past hired others with more questionable backgrounds.  Furthermore, the court noted that CSX was not “a particularly selective employer”, raising the likelihood that he was not hired due to his disability.

The court offered no opinion as to Lawson’s likely success at trial, but said the evidence warranted a fair hearing at trial.

– Nevin Adams