Obesity And The ADA – A Tightrope

A recent federal 8th Circuit decision held that obesity was not, in itself, protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The 8th Circuit classified obesity as "a physical characteristic—as opposed to a physical impairment," if the underlying cause of the obesity is not a "physiological disorder or condition." Morriss v. BNSF Ry. Co., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 6179, *6 (8th Cir. Neb. Apr. 5, 2016).

"In sum, we conclude that for obesity, even morbid obesity, to be considered a physical impairment, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition. This remains the standard even after enactment of the ADAAA, which did not affect the definition of physical impairment." Id at *21.

The Court stated that the ADA protected existing physical impairments, not physical characteristics which could become a physical impairment. Id at *24.

Melvin Morriss applied for a machinist position with BSNF and was offered employment contingent upon meeting BSNF's medical requirements for "safety-sensitive" positions. It was BSNF's internal written policy not to hire machinists with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40 or higher because "BNSF believed [an employee in a safety-sensitive position] having a BMI of 40, would or could develop...health risks in the future." Id at *24.

BNSF received both a medical questionnaire from Morriss in which Morriss stated that his overall health was "good" and medical records by Morriss' doctor showing no health issues. BNSF then conducted two physical exams, when they discovered that Morriss' BMI was above 40. After making the discovery, BNSF revoked their employment offer.

Morriss sued BNSF, claiming "his obesity was an actual disability under the ADA and that BSNF regarded his obesity as an actual disability." Id at *4. The Court rejected these claims and affirmed the ruling of the district court granting summary judgment for BNSF.

The Court reasoned that "Morriss was denied employment . . . not because of any then current health risk identified by BNSF" but because of BNSF's internal policy concerning "safety-position" workers. Id at *24.

Take Away Points:

  • The BSNF's (the employer) written internal policy tying Body Mass to "safety" was persuasive.
  • Obesity alone is not a disability under the ADA.
  • Obesity is only protected under the ADA if the underlying cause of obesity is otherwise protected under the ADA.
  • Adverse employment decisions are permissible when they are related to the possibility of health risks developing in the future so long as the applicant is not otherwise protected under the ADA at the time of such consideration.