Can An Employer Refuse To Hire An Applicant For Being Too Obese?
Maybe – the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that refusing to hire an employee due to his or her obesity does not constitute disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) unless certain conditions are met.
In Morriss v. BNSF Railway Co., the employer maintained a policy that it would not hire an employee for a safety-sensitive position if the employee’s body mass index (BMI) was over 40. After receiving a conditional offer of employment, the plaintiff underwent two pre-employment physical examinations for a safety-sensitive position. At the first examination, his BMI was 40.9. At the second examination, his BMI was 40.4. Following the examinations, the employer revoked the offer of employment and stated that the employee was not qualified for the position “due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity ([BMI] of 40 or greater).” The employee then sued.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims on summary judgment. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s decision that the plaintiff failed to prove that his obesity was a disability protected by the ADA.
The ADA defines the term “disability” to include a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities” of an individual. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(g)(1). The ADA further defines the phrase “physical or mental impairment” to include “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.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1).
In Morriss, the plaintiff was unable to show that his obesity was a “disability” because he could not show that it was the result of an underlying “physical or mental impairment.” In rejecting the plaintiff’s discrimination claim, the court explained that:
[A]n 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. Both requirements must be satisfied before a physical impairment can be found. In other words, weight outside the normal range—no matter how far outside the normal range—must be the result of an underlying physiological disorder to qualify as a physical impairment under the ADA.
The plaintiff in Morriss was unable to satisfy this definition of disability because even his own doctor testified that he did not suffer from any medical condition that caused his obesity or any medical condition associated with obesity, such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiac disease, or sleep apnea.
Takeaway: Obesity does not qualify as a disability under the ADA unless it is both outside the normal range of weight and is the result of an underlying physical impairment.