Eighth Circuit Rules Obesity, By Itself, Not a Disability Under ADA


Melvin Morriss, III v. BNSF Railway Company, No. 14-3858 (8th Cir. 2016)

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently ruled that obesity, by itself, is not a disability under the Americans with Disability Act of 1990, as amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA).  Following the Second and Sixth Circuits, the Eighth Circuit concluded that “the relevant statutory and regulatory language makes it clear 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.”  Opinion, p. 7.

In March 2011, Melvin Morriss, III (“Morriss”) applied for a machinist position with BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”).  The machinist position was a safety-sensitive position; as a result, the offer of employment was contingent on a satisfactory medical review.  “BNSF’s policy was not to hire a new applicant for a safety-sensitive position if his BMI equaled or exceeded 40.”  Id., p. 3.  Morriss was 5’10” tall, weighed 270 pounds, had been diagnosed as “pre-diabetic” but was not currently a diabetic, and his doctor stated he had no limitations and was capable of performing the duties of a machinist.  When two physicals determined that Morriss’ BMI was 40.9 and 40.4 respectively, BNSF revoked its conditional offer of employment because “he was ‘[n]ot currently qualified for the safety sensitive Machinist position due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity ([BMI] of 40 or greater).’”  Id.

Morriss filed suit against BNSF alleging disability discrimination.  After the District Court granted summary judgment for BNSF, Morriss appealed, arguing “that his obesity, even without evidence of an underlying physiological disorder or conditions, is a physical impairment – and thus a disability – under the ADA and that BNSF regarded it as such.”  Id., pp. 4 and 5.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  The ADA defines disability “as ‘(A) a physical … impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities … (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.’  42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A)-(C).”  Id., p. 5.  To “prevail on his ‘regarded as’ claim, Morriss was required to show that his obesity was an actual or perceived physical impairment.”  Id., pp. 5 – 6.  Morriss interpreted the EEOC’s interpretive guidance to mean that obesity may be a disability, even if not the result of a physiological disorder, if an individual’s weight was outside the “normal range.”

The Eighth Circuit disagreed.  Instead, it concluded “that a more natural reading of the interpretive guidance is 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.  Both requirements must be satisfied before a physical impairment can be found.  In other words, 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.”  Id., p. 7.  Thus, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Morriss’ lawsuit.

If you have any questions regarding the ADA, please contact Raymond Rinkol, Jr. at 319-861-8780 or via email at rrinkol@bradleyriley.com.

Raymond R. Rinkol, Jr.
Civil Litigation, Creditors' Rights, Labor & Employment Law