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The Eighth Circuit Finds Obesity Unrelated to Physiological Condition is Not a Disability under the ADA

on Thursday, 2 June 2016 in Labor & Employment Law Update: Sarah M. Huyck, Editor

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit recently found that BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”) did not violate the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”) when BNSF refused to hire an applicant on the basis of his obesity. The ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The Court, however, found that obesity is not a disability under the ADA unless it is caused by a physiological disorder or condition.

The applicant, Melvin Morriss (“Morriss”), applied for a position as a machinist at BNSF. BNSF extended a conditional offer to Morriss contingent upon a satisfactory medical review. The medical review, however, revealed that Morriss weighed 270 pounds and had a body mass index of 40.9. BNSF’s policy was not to hire any applicants for safety-sensitive positions, such as BNSF’s machinist position, if their BMI equaled or exceeded 40. Therefore, BNSF refused to hire Morriss “due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity.”

Morriss filed suit against BNSF and alleged that the Company violated the ADA and the Nebraska Fair Employment Practice Act when it refused to hire him on the basis of his obesity. In his lawsuit, Morriss claimed both disability discrimination and “regarded as” discrimination. BNSF argued that Morriss’ obesity is not a disability as defined under the ADA because his obesity was not caused by a physiological disorder or condition. The district court agreed and granted BNSF’s motion for summary judgment. Morriss appealed.

In Morriss v. BNSF Railway Co., No. 14-3858 (8th Cir. 2016), the Eighth Circuit noted that the EEOC’s regulations define “physical impairment” to mean any “physiological disorder or condition . . . affecting one or more body systems . . . .” Accordingly, the Court noted that “obesity is not a physical impairment unless it is a physiological disorder or condition and it affects a major body system.” The Court then stated 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 a result of a physiological disorder. . . even weight outside the normal range—no matter how far outside that range—must be the result of an underlying physiological disorder to qualify as a physical impairment under the ADA.”

The Eighth Circuit’s decision is significant because it was decided after the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which expanded the definition of a disability under the ADA. Despite the Court’s ruling, however, employers should still be cautious before denying applicants a position on account of their obesity. If an applicant’s obesity results in another medical condition or is caused by another medical condition, that condition may qualify as a disability under the ADA.

Christopher D. Sandy

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