In a closely watched case, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Morriss v. BNSF Railway Co. [pdf], has rejected a claim that the ADA protects “obesity” as a disability.
Melvin Morriss had applied for a machinist position with BNSF and was extended a conditional offer of employment contingent on a satisfactory medical review. Morriss completed BNSF’s medical questionnaire, reporting that he was 5’10” tall and weighed 270 pounds, that he had once been diagnosed as “pre-diabetic” but was not currently diabetic. Two subsequent physical examinations by BNSF doctors pegged his weight between 281 and 285 pounds, and his BMI between 40.4 and 40.9. BNSF’s policy was not to hire for a safety-sensitive position if the applicant’s BMI was 40 or greater. Thus, BNSF revoked its conditional offer of employment, and Morriss sued.
The court ultimately concluded that obesity this is not linked to or caused by an underlying medical condition is not an ADA-protected disability. The court heavily relied on the EEOC’s ADA Interpretive Guidance in distinguishing between a protected physical impairment and an unprotected physical, psychological, environmental, cultural, or economic characteristic.
We conclude 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. Both requirements must be satisfied before a physical impairment can be found. In other words, even weight outside the normal range—no matter how far outside that range—must be the result of an underlying physiological disorder to qualify as a physical impairment under the ADA.… Taken as a whole, the relevant statutory and regulatory language makes it clear that for obesity to qualify as a physical impairment—and thus a disability—under the ADA, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition.
This decision is consistent with that of the 6th Circuit in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, which held that weight far outside the normal range does not constitute a physical impairment in the absence of an underlying physiological disorder or condition. Watkins, however, is a 2006 case, and BNFS is the first obestity-as-disability appellate decision since the the ADAAA significantly amended the Act’s definition of disability in 2009. The EEOC had weighed in on the employee’s behalf in an attempt to expand the definition of disability to cover obesity not triggered by or linked to an underlying medical condition. For this reason, BNSF is a key victory for employers on on this issue.