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Eighth Circuit: Obesity Itself Not a Disability

By Scott M. Gilbert

The scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was broadened through the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (the “Amendments”). Prior to the Amendments, various Supreme Court holdings had narrowed the scope of what qualified as a disability under the ADA. The Amendments rejected a number of these rulings and expanded what qualified as a disability.  Since then, it had been an open issue as to whether obesity, in and of itself, could qualify as a disability under the ADA. The EEOC Compliance Manual has indicated that the EEOC believed extreme obesity could be a disability in and of itself.

This was the issue presented to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company. Mr. Morriss, who was conditionally hired as a machinist for BNSF, was 5’10” tall and weighed over 270 pounds. As part of BNSF’s standard medical review, Mr. Morriss participated in two medical examinations, which resulted in findings that his body mass index (“BMI”) was 40.9 and 40.4, respectively. As a result, BNSF revoked the conditional offer of employment based on its policy of not hiring individuals for the machinist position who have a BMI of 40 or greater. Mr. Morris subsequently filed suit against BNSF alleging that his obesity was a disability under the ADA.

Ultimately, the case hinged on the meaning of the term “disability” under the ADA. Rejecting Mr. Morriss’ claim that his obesity was a stand-alone disability, the Eighth Circuit noted that Mr. Morriss admitted that his obesity was not caused by an underlying condition, and that it did not result in any physical limitations. As a result, the Court focused on the EEOC’s interpretive guidance, which states that physical characteristics like weight do not qualify as disabilities unless they are (a) outside a “normal” range and (b) result from a physiological disorder. As a result, the court held that even severe obesity does not qualify as a disability unless it results from an underlying physiological disorder.

The Eighth Circuit’s holding provides some much needed clarity on this issue following the Amendments. Nevertheless, the ruling is narrow. Specifically, whether extreme obesity is the product of an underlying physiological condition generally requires inquiry of the affected employee or a medical examination. As a result, employers must still use caution before making employment decisions based on an individual’s weight.