The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that obesity is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In Melvin A. Morriss III v. BNSF Railway Company (BNSF), consistent with other U.S. Circuit Court cases, the court found that a disability exists for an obese individual only if there is an underlying physical condition that would otherwise qualify as a disability under the ADA.
In March 2011, Melvin Morriss applied for a machinist position with BNSF. The position was safety sensitive and dependent on a satisfactory medical review, which included a medical questionnaire and a measurement of the applicant’s Body Mass Index (BMI).
The BMI value is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to men and women. There are different categories that fit within the BMI. A BMI from 18.5 to 24.9 is considered to be in the normal weight category, a BMI from 25 to 29.9 is overweight, and a BMI of 30 or greater is regarded as obese.
BNSF’s hiring policy for the machinist position included a rule excluding any applicant whose BMI was over 40, which is defined as Class 3 obesity on the scale developed by the World Health Organization.
On BNSF’s medical questionnaire, Morriss described his health as “good,” and had disclosed no difficulties or limitations in his daily activities. Morriss stated that he did not believe he had a physical disability, he was not aware of any underlying condition that contributed to his obesity or to his inability to lose weight, and that his weight caused no physical limitations.
In May 2011, BNSF doctors conducted two physical examinations of Morriss. In the first physical he weighed 285 pounds with a height of 5’8” and had a BMI of 40.9. In the second physical he weighed 281 pounds and had a BMI of 40.4.
Because Morriss had a BMI over 40 in both instances, BNSF’s medical department notified him by email that he was “not currently qualified for the safety sensitive Machinist position due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity (BMI) of 40 or greater.” BNSF then canceled its offer of employment to Morriss for failure to meet the medical analysis standards.
In January 2013, Morriss sued BNSF, alleging that BNSF discriminated against him when it revoked its offer of employment based on his obesity. Morriss claimed that his obesity was an actual disability under the ADA and that BNSF did not regard it as such.
According to the ADA, it is unlawful for a covered employer to discriminate against any “qualified individual on the basis of disability.”
The ADA defines an individual with a disability as:
- a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- a person who has a history or record of such an impairment; or
- a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
The ADA does not expressly define “impairment,” but the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has statutory authority to issue regulations implementing the ADA, has defined the term to mean, “any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.” Under the plain language of this definition, obesity is not a physical impairment unless it is a physiological disorder or condition and it affects a major body system.
Given these definitions, the district court found that Morriss’ obesity was not a disability because he failed to prove it was a physical impairment. The court noted that Morriss had clearly denied suffering from any medical impairment or condition on his medical questionnaire.
The 8th Circuit agreed with the district court and concluded 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 occurs as the result of a physical disorder.
The 8th Circuit cited several court cases with similar outcomes. In EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines (6th Cir. 2006) the Sixth Circuit rejected the argument that weight far outside the normal range may constitute a physical impairment even in the absence of an underlying physiological disorder or condition. And in Francis v. City of Meriden (2d Cir. 1997), the court concluded that “obesity, except in special cases where the obesity relates to a physiological disorder, is not a ‘physical impairment’ within the meaning of the [ADA].”
The court’s decision in Morriss shows that certain job restrictions based on health are not considered discrimination under the ADA. However, employers should be cautious about their actions toward obese employees. As a safeguard, employers should aim to provide reasonable accommodation to obese employees, wherever possible.
To keep employees healthy, employers may try to make their workplaces healthier through company-backed incentives such as a wellness program for a healthier workplace. This could encourage employees to make health-conscious decisions.