LEGAL: Employer refused to hire morbidly obese plaintiff

Jeff Jones.

The subject of morbidly obese plaintiffs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generates a lot of interest as well as litigation. In 2008, Congress made changes to the original law by enacting the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). Though the amendments made it easier for some ADA plaintiffs to prevail, questions still remain. A very recent Eighth Circuit decision endorses the reasoning of a pre-ADAAA Sixth Circuit decision that concluded that obesity, standing alone, is not a physical impairment.

In Morriss v. BNSF Railway Co., 817 F.3d 1104 (8th Cir. 2016), the court granted summary judgment to an employer facing a complaint of both “disability” “regarded as disabled” discrimination. The plaintiff applied for a safety sensitive machinist position with the railroad company, and his offer of employment was contingent on a satisfactory medical review. The employer revoked its offer of employment based on his obesity. He did not have medical conditions associated with obesity or claim physical limitations. The plaintiff sued, contending discrimination because of an actual disability under the ADA and because he was regarded as disabled. The employer was granted summary judgment on both counts and the plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment ruling for the employer, and its analysis is instructive. First, agreeing with EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, 463 F.3d 436, 442-43 (6th Cir. 2006), the court found 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, and thus an ADA violation, can be found. Second, the court found that earlier cases dealing with the issue were still applicable. The ADAAA charged the EEOC with the responsibility of redefining the terms, “substantially limits” and “major life activity” to insure broader coverage, but Congress did not give instructions regarding the definition of “physical impairment.”

Next, the court found obesity, in and of itself, is not a physical impairment simply because it has been labeled “severe,” “morbid” or “Class III.” Instead, weight is merely a physical characteristic – not a physical impairment – unless it is both outside the normal range and a result of an underlying physiological disorder. In so ruling, the court rejected a provision in a now withdrawn EEOC compliance manual that states “severe obesity,” “body weight more than 100 percent over the norm” is an impairment. Even after the enactment of the ADAAA, to be considered a physical impairment, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition.

In rejecting the argument that the employer regarded him as having a physical impairment, the appeals 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 under the act. As noted by the district court, the EEOC’s own current interpretive guidance specifically states that, “the definition [of impairment]…does not include characteristic pre-disposition to illness or disease.”

The court’s position is different than that of the EEOC, which filed a brief in support of the plaintiff. The Compliance Manual referred to above was removed because of the ADAAA changes, but the EEOC nonetheless continues to contend that morbid obesity can be a disability and has entered into consent decrees in the last 5 years with at least two employers in similar cases. The decision also does not address the June 2013, resolution of the American Medical Association (AMA) which declares obesity to be a disease.

Note: This ruling provides a useful precedent to employers in defending obesity discrimination cases. It also furnishes some useful explanations of the application of the ADAAA. However, obesity cases remain controversial and ripe candidates for litigation.

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