Monday, April 18, 2016

8th Circuit Says Obesity Alone is not a Disability

In 2008 the ADA was amended to allow for many more conditions to meet the definition of disability under that Act. One of those conditions about which employers have worried would restrict their hiring criteria is obesity. Recently, the 8th Circuit, was the first appellate level court to rule that obesity alone is not a disability even under the expanded definition of such in the ADA.

The defendant in Morriss v. BNSF Railway Co. had a company policy of not hiring applicants with a body mass index over 40. Despite that fact and the fact that the plaintiff, Morriss was morbidly obese, the company made him a conditional job offer as a machinist. He was sent for a medical exam pursuant to company policy.  The results of the exam revealed that Morriss was in good health and that his weight would not affect his ability to do the job. Thereafter, the company withdrew their job offer consistent with their body mass index policy. 

Morris sued, alleging that the 2008 amendments to the ADA would include any physical characteristics that are considered outside of “normal” range.  The 8th Circuit disagreed, finding that Congress intended only to broaden the law with respect to conditions that limit a person's ability to work. "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," the court wrote. In this case, Morriss did not allege nor did evidence exist that his obesity was the result of a physiological disorder or that it would impair his ability to work. The federal district courts in Illinois have reached the same conclusion. 

This is good news for employers, many of whom have been concerned that the expanded ADA would regulate hiring of those with certain physical traits even when they were unrelated to a physiological condition. Note, though, that BSNF did everything right. Although it had a policy prohibiting employment of individuals with a body mass index over 40, it nonetheless made a conditional offer to Morriss despite the fact that he clearly would not be in compliance with that policy. It was only after a medical exam ruled out an underlying physiological condition as the root of his obesity did the company withdraw its offer of employment. 

While employers can maintain a policy of refusing to hire morbidly obese candidates, they must tread carefully. If an individual’s obesity is the result of some disorder which is covered by the ADA, refusing to hire that person because they are obese is tantamount to refusing to hire them because of the underlying disorder, which will likely run afoul of the ADA. Before any adverse employment action based on an individual’s obesity, always ensure that no other, protected, condition exists.