Federal Appellate Court Rules that Obesity is Not a Disability (Most of the Time)

In a case of first impression for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the court ruled that, in most cases, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not cover obesity alone. In Morriss v. BSNF Railway Company, Mr. Morriss sued the railroad when his offer of employment was revoked after a physical. The would-be employee failed a physical when his Body Mass Index (BMI) was found to violate company policy, even though he did not have any current health concerns or work restrictions. The company, concerned about health and safety risks to which an employee with a high BMI may be susceptible, had instituted a policy refusing to hire candidates with a high BMI for safety-sensitive positions. Mr. Morriss sued, arguing the company discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. The company was granted summary judgment, and Mr. Morriss appealed.
The ADA prohibits a covered employer from discriminating against any “qualified individual on the basis of disability”. Of the several definitions of “disability”, the Eighth Circuit focused on whether Mr. Morriss had an actual or perceived physical impairment. A physical impairment, as defined by the EEOC, means a physiological disorder affecting one or more body systems. As a result, the court concluded that an individual’s weight is considered covered when it falls outside the normal range and occurs as a result of a physiological disorder. Because Mr. Morriss had no evidence that his weight was the result of a physiological disorder, the court affirmed the district court’s decision. While this decision does not mean that ADA coverage is out of reach for claimants with obesity, it certainly excludes a substantial amount of claims. When conducting physicals, Iowa and Nebraska employers with similar policies should take care that the candidate does not have any underlying disorder causing obesity or a covered disability arising from obesity to avoid liability under the ADA.