This month the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's ruling that an employer did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (ADA), when it refused to hire a job candidate for a safety sensitive machinist position because the candidate was obese and had a body mass index (BMI) of greater than 40. Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company.
BNSF maintains a policy that prohibits the hiring of a new applicant for a safety sensitive position if his BMI exceeds 40 due to the significant health and safety risks associated with that level of obesity. Morris applied for a machinist position with BNSF. Because BNSF considered the position to be safety sensitive, it made the offer of employment contingent on a satisfactory medical review. In response to BNSF's medical questionnaire, Morriss reported that his health was "good" and that he experienced no difficulties or limitations in his daily activities. BNSF's doctors conducted two physical exams of Morriss and in both exams, found he had a BMI of more than 40. In reliance on its BMI policy, BNSF withdrew the conditional offer of employment.
Morriss sued BNSF for disability discrimination claiming his obesity was an actual disability under the ADA and that BNSF regarded his obesity as an actual disability. BNSF argued that Morriss's obesity did not meet the definition of a disability because it was not a "physical impairment," and that BNSF did not regard his obesity as a disability because it acted only on its assessment of Morriss's predisposition to develop an illness or disease in the future. The district court granted BNSF's motion for summary judgment, and Morriss appealed.
Reviewing the EEOC's Interpretive Guidance on Title I of the ADA, the Eighth Circuit concluded 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. In other words, even weight outside the normal range must be the result of an underlying physiological disorder to qualify as an impairment under the ADA. The Court also rejected Morriss's argument that the threshold question of whether an impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis, finding that an individual must first establish he has a qualifying impairment before the less extensive analysis is applied to determine whether the impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
The Court rejects the "regarded as" claim
The Court reiterated that the ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual on the basis of a presently existing physical impairment, but does not prohibit an employer from acting on some other basis, such as its determination that there is an unacceptable risk of a future physical impairment. Drawing a clear line, the Court found that "the ADA does not prohibit discrimination based on a perception that a physical characteristic---as opposed to a physical impairment---may eventually lead to a physical impairment as defined by the Act."
With this decision, the Eighth Circuit joins the Sixth and Second Circuits in holding that for obesity to qualify as a disability under the ADA, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition. Employers should be mindful that there are conflicting opinions from other courts, and should also understand the difference between a physical characteristic and a physical impairment before deciding whether to take adverse action against a job candidate or employee based on weight.