Obesity Isn't a Protected Disability, 8th Cir. Rules

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 04, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An employer did not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act when it rescinded an offer to an overweight candidate, the Eighth Circuit ruled last month. In doing so, the court rejected a claim that obesity is a disability and that the obese are protected against discrimination under the ADA -- as long as that obesity isn't linked to or caused by another medical condition.

Litigation over obesity is becoming more common as American's waistlines expand. But, with decisions like the Eighth Circuit's, those claiming anti-obese discrimination aren't likely to see much luck in federal courts.

When BMI Costs You the Job

The case arose after the BNSF Railway offered Melvin Morris a job as a machinist, then rescinded the offer when it determined Morris was too rotund. Morris had originally applied for the position in 2011, and was given an offer conditioned on a medical review.

As part of that process, BNSF doctors conducted two physical examinations. In the first, Morris weighed 285 pounds with a body mass index of 40.9. On the second exam, Morris's BMI dropped slightly, to 40.4.

BMI is a quick and common way to calculate someone's mass and determine if they are underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. Any number over 25 qualifies as overweight, over 30 and it's obese. Since BNSF has a policy about not employing worker with BMI's over 40 in "safety-sensitive" positions like machinists, Morris's employment offer was rescinded.

You Need More Than Just Obesity

Morris sued, alleging that BNSF discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. The problem for Morris, however, was that he claimed to be in good health, and while obesity can lead to future disabilities, acting on a "characteristic predisposition to illness or disease" was not prohibited by the ADA, the district court ruled, granting summary judgement to BNSF.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit upheld that decision, with a particular focus on the fact that Morris's weight wasn't the result of an underlying medical condition. The Eighth's ruling relied on the EEOC's ADA guidance on distinguishing between a protected physical impairment and an unprotected characteristic.

Under that guidance, the court explained, "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 physiological disorder." Both requirements need to be met for an ADA violation to be found.

The case is the first to address obesity as a disability since the ADA's definition of disability was amended in 2009. But, at least when it comes to weight, that amendment doesn't seem to have changed much. The Eighth Circuit's decision is in line with the Sixth Circuit's holding on obesity and the ADA from 2006, before the redefinition.

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