Eighth Circuit Rejects Obesity as an Impairment Under the ADA: Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company

Katherine M. Flett

By Katherine M. Flett

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) was enacted for the purpose of broadening the scope of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADAAA expanded the definitions of “major life activities” and “substantially limits,” while also increasing protection for those who are “regarded as” having a disability.  Over the years, the ADAAA has been criticized for being too broad.  However, three circuits have now rejected the idea that obesity, without an underlying physiological disorder or condition, is a disability under the ADA.

In Morriss v. BNSF Ry. Co, Case No. 14-3858 (8th Cir. April 5, 2016), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a Nebraska district court’s decision, ruling that for obesity to constitute an “impairment” under the ADA, one must prove that the obesity is the result of a physiological disorder or condition.

In March 2011, Melvin Morriss, applied for a machinist position with BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”). Morriss was extended an offer of employment contingent on a satisfactory medical review.  A subsequent physical examination indicated that Morriss was 5’10”, 285 pounds, with a BMI of 40.9. BNSF’s policy was to not hire obese (defined as having a BMI of 40 or higher) applicants for safety sensitive positions. Therefore, Morriss was notified that he would not qualify for the safety sensitive machinist position due to his obesity.

Morriss sued BNSF, alleging that he suffered unlawful discrimination under the ADA, based on his actual and perceived disability of obesity. Apart from his weight, Morriss reported no medical conditions or diseases. The district court granted summary judgment to BNSF, holding that Morriss could not show that he was regarded as suffering an actual disability because he failed to show his obesity was a physical impairment – defined as “a physiological disorder or condition that affected one or more major body systems.”  The district court also held that he was not unlawfully “perceived” as disabled because BNSF acted only on its assessment of his predisposition to develop an illness or disease in the future, which is not included in the ADA’s definition of impairment.

On appeal, Morriss argued that because the EEOC’s interpretative guidance indicated that weight that is within the “normal” range is not an impairment, conversely, weight outside of the “normal” range should constitute an impairment.  The Eighth Circuit rejected this argument, concluding that “a more natural reading of the interpretive guidance is that an individual’s weight is generally a physical characteristic that qualifies as a physical impairment only if it falls outside the normal range and it occurs as the result of a physiological disorder.”

Morriss argued further that EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2006) and Francis v. City of Meriden, 129 F.3d 281 (2d Cir. 1997), cases from the Sixth and Second Circuits that also rejected obesity as a disability, were inapposite because they were decided prior to the ADAAA. The Eighth Circuit also rejected this argument, finding that nothing in the ADAAA changed the definition of “physical impairment.”

In addition, Morris argued that obesity by itself is a physical impairment because it has been labeled “severe,” “morbid,” or “Class III” obesity.”  The Court relied once more on the EEOC interpretive guidance, stating that weight is merely a physical characteristic and not a physical impairment, unless it is both outside of the normal range and the result of an underlying physiological disorder.  To the extent the EEOC Compliance Manual states that “severe obesity” is an impairment, it contradicted the ADA’s plain language as well as the EEOC’s own regulations and interpretive guidance, which all define “physical impairment” to require an underlying physiological disorder.

Last, the Court held that Morriss’ “perceived disability” claim again failed, finding that employers are permitted to act on an assessment that there is an unacceptable risk of a future physical impairment, as long as there is no existing physical impairment.

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit joined the Second and Sixth Circuits, as well as other state and federal courts, in rejecting the notion that obesity alone is a disability under the ADA.  Missouri state courts have also rejected obesity as a disability protected by the Missouri Human Rights Act.  See Missouri Comm’n on Human Rights v. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co., 699 S.W. 2d 75, 79 (Mo. App. W.D. 1985).

Take-Away Points for Employers:

  • Obesity alone is not a disability under the ADA. To qualify, the obesity must be the result of a physiological disorder or condition.
    • However, employers must keep in mind that obesity is often accompanied by physiological disorders or conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, that are considered disabilities under the ADA. These related conditions are within the scope of the ADA and may require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation.
    • An employer that receives an employee ADA accommodation request based solely on obesity should request information regarding the underlying causes of obesity. If there is no physiological disorder or condition causing the obesity, the obesity alone will not be considered a disability under the ADA.
  • Employers may make employment decisions based on the presence of an unacceptable risk of future impairment, as long as there is no existing physical impairment.
  • Employers should avoid blanket policies prohibiting obesity. Such a policy that is not carefully tailored to meet a legitimate business need may be interpreted by a court as having a disparate impact on disabled employees, in violation of the ADA.

Click here to read the opinion in its entirety.

Posted by Attorney Katherine M. Flett. Flett is a member of the litigation team focusing on assisting clients with matters relating to business, civil and commercial litigation.

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