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Morbidly obese applicant denied job due to safety: Is that discrimination?

A company withdrew its conditional job offer to a morbidly obese applicant because its policy was not to hire someone for a safety-sensitive position if their body mass index (BMI) is 40 or more. Did a court agree with the applicant that this violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? 

Melvin Morriss applied for a machinist position with BNSF Railway Co. The company made an employment offer contingent on a medical review because the job was safety-sensitive.

Morriss, 5’10”, weighed 285 pounds (BMI 40.9) at one medical checkup and 281 pounds (BMI 40.4) at another.

BNSF’s policy was not to hire a new applicant for a safety-sensitive position with a BMI of 40 or more. The company notified Morriss he was “not currently qualified for the safety sensitive Machinist position due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity (BMI of 40 or greater).” BNSF withdrew its job offer.

Morriss filed a lawsuit alleging BNSF discriminated against him based on his obesity. He claimed his obesity was a disability under the ADA and that BNSF regarded his obesity as an actual disability.

BNSF asked for the lawsuit to be thrown out because Morriss’s obesity didn’t meet the definition of disability under the ADA because it wasn’t a “physical impairment” and that BNSF didn’t regard his obesity as a disability.

A federal district court granted the company’s request to throw out the lawsuit. The court found Morriss failed to provide any evidence to support his claim that his obesity was a disability under the ADA or that the company regarded him as having a disability.

Morriss appealed to the Eighth Circuit court.

Underlying physiological disorder?

The question on appeal was whether obesity qualified as a disability under the ADA.

The ADA defines disability as:

  • a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • a record of such as impairment, or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

While the ADA doesn’t define physical impairment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has defined it as:

“any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.”

Under the EEOC’s interpretive guidance, a person’s weight qualifies as a physical impairment only if it falls outside the normal range and occurs as the result of a physiological disorder. The Second and Sixth Circuit Courts have reached the same conclusion: that for obesity to qualify as a disability, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition.

Although Morriss had once been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, he considered his overall health to be good and experienced no difficulties or limitations in his daily activities. His doctor submitted records that showed Morriss wasn’t diabetic. The doctor said Morriss didn’t suffer from any medical condition that caused his obesity or any condition associated with obesity, such as hypertension, cardiac disease or sleep apnea.

Morriss argued his obesity itself was a physical impairment because it was labeled severe and morbid. But the court rejected that argument.

On the question of whether BNSF regarded Morriss as having a disability, Morriss argued the company refused to hire him because it thought his obesity presented a high risk that he would develop medical conditions in the future.

But the court said the ADA prohibits discrimination against someone with a presently existing physical impairment. The law doesn’t prohibit an employer from taking action on the risk of a future physical impairment.

For those reasons, the circuit court upheld the district court’s decision to throw out Morriss’s lawsuit.

Two takeaways for businesses (at least those in the Eighth Circuit territory):

  1. Obesity qualifies as a physical impairment under the ADA (and thus a disability) only if it results from a physiological disorder, and
  2. The ADA doesn’t prohibit an employer from acting on its assessment that there is an unacceptable risk an applicant would suffer a future physical impairment.

What do you think about this case? Let us know in the comments.

(Melvin A. Morriss III v. BNSF Railway Company, U.S. Circuit Crt. 8, No. 14-3858, 4/5/16)

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Comments

  1. Well, you read all these articles on here where workers compensation and death benefits awarded to employees for health issues that stem from personal health and lifestyle choices, it’s not surprising that some companies are now changing their hiring practices. It’s surprising that they were so up front in a letter specifying that he wasn’t qualified because of obesity, but maybe they expected this outcome.

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