A railway company and the business groups that supported its position scored a victory April 5 with the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that obesity is not a covered condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ruling is the latest to support the position that general obesity, without an underlying medical cause, does not warrant protection under the ADA.

In Melvin Morriss III v. BNSF Railway Co., the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier district court decision in favor of defendant BNSF. The three-judge panel agreed that “for obesity to qualify as a physical impairment — and thus a disability — under the ADA, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition.” Because the plaintiff had not shown this to be the case in his situation, the ADA did not apply.

Obesity as an impairment

The plaintiff, Morriss, applied for a machinist job with BNSF in 2011 and received a conditional offer for the position, contingent on a medical review. Two physicals indicated his body mass index exceeded the limit BNSF places on new hires for “safety-sensitive” positions, so the job offer was revoked. The plaintiff claimed that BNSF’s refusal refused to hire him because of his obesity amounted to a discriminatory action in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He filed suit in January 2013.

In assessing Morriss’ claim that obesity was a disability, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska considered Morriss’ medical questionnaire in which he denied suffering from any medical impairment or condition. Morriss’ personal physician testified in a deposition that Morriss’ obesity was not the result of any physiological condition, nor did Morriss suffer from any medical condition associated with obesity, such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiac disease or sleep apnea. Morriss himself testified that he was unaware of any underlying condition that contributed to his obesity or any physical limitation caused by his obesity. Based on this evidence, the trial court concluded that Morriss did not have a “physical impairment” as is required to meet the definition of “disabled.”

Furthermore, the trial court concluded that BNSF did not regard Morriss as having a presently existing physical impairment. The court concluded that BNSF’s concern that Morriss’ obesity created an unacceptably high risk that he might develop future medical conditions was insufficient to satisfy the “regarded as” prong of the ADA. Based on these findings, the trial court granted BNSF’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed Morriss case with prejudice. Morriss challenged that judgment in his appeal to the 8th Circuit.

Morriss argued that previous decisions from the Second and Sixth Circuits — which each agreed that obesity by itself does not qualify as an impairment to be covered — should not apply because they were decided before significant revisions were made to the ADA. Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) in 2008, with an intent to provide broader coverage of people with disabilities. However, the 8th Circuit panel noted that the enactment of the ADAAA did not change the definition of physical impairment and so the pre-ADAAA case law remains relevant. Examining the case law, the appellate court concluded that obesity only qualified as a disability if the condition was caused by a physiological condition. The appellate court also agreed with the trial court’s analysis of Morriss’ regarded as disabled claim and affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

Impact on employers

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other major business associations filed amicus briefs in support of BNSF’s position that the ADA requires a physiological basis to trigger coverage of obesity. To interpret the requirements otherwise, the business groups argued, would disadvantage employers. The impact “would be immediate and profound,” they noted, citing “massive” potential for heightened litigation and unrealistic accommodation demands that would divert time and resources from those with more clearly defined impairments.

For ADA-covered employers, the decision in Morriss reaffirms that the act does not apply to those who are simply obese, without an underlying physical impairment. However, the Morriss decision does not create an unfettered right for employers to make employment decisions based on an individual’s weight. The Morriss decision merely applies to those individuals who, despite their obesity, are otherwise relatively healthy. Further, Morriss happened to be someone whose obesity was not caused by an underlying condition. Individuals with a physiological condition that leads to obesity, as well as those who have health conditions associated with their obesity are still protected by the ADA. With groups including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pressing these issues, employers must remain careful in their assessment before taking actions based on an employee’s weight.