Obesity is sometimes referred to as a growing epidemic. There is more obesity today. But, obesity in itself does not rise to the level of a disability, according to a recent Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. In Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company, No. 14-3858 (8th Cir. 4/5/2016), the plaintiff was 5’10” and weighed 285 pounds. He was at one time “pre-diabetic,” but as of the time when he applied for a job with BNSF, he suffered from no particular diagnosis. Mr. Morriss had a body mass index of 40.9 for one physical exam and 40.4 at another physical exam. BNSF had a policy against hiring anyone for a safety position with a BMI greater than 40. The plaintiff lost on summary judgment at the district court level.
The plaintiff appealed on the grounds that he was regarded as having a disability. The Eighth Circuit disagreed. It said to qualify as a disability under the ADA, there must be a physical impairment that falls outside the normal range and that impairment occurs as a result of a physiological disorder. The plaintiff cited more recent cases based on the ADA Amendments Act that found there need be a physiological disorder only when the weight falls within the normal range. But, said the court, Congress did not change the definition of physical impairment when it amended the ADA. It did change the legal standard, but did not change the definition of physical impairment. And, that definition requires there be some underlying physiological disorder.
The court then found that the employer did not regard Plaintiff as having a disability. Instead, it regarded him as having physical characteristic. So, yes the employer could regard him as having a physical characteristic that could lead to future medical problems. See decision here. The Eighth Circuit joins the Second and Sixth Circuit in finding that obesity alone does not qualify as a disability under the ADA.
Regardless of this decision, as the population becomes heavier, I expect we will see more litigation over this issue.