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Morbid Obesity Must Have Physiological Cause to Gain ADA Protection

    Client Alerts
  • April 19, 2016

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has considered morbid obesity to fall within the definition of a protected disability. Earlier this month, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that obesity alone will not qualify for ADA protection absent an underlying physical disorder that causes the condition.

In Morriss v. BNSF Ry. Co., the employer withdrew an offer of employment after the plaintiff’s pre-employment medical exam revealed a BMI index over 40. He sued under the ADA, claiming that the employer regarded him as disabled. BNSF moved for summary judgment, and the district court agreed, concluding that the plaintiff was regarded as overweight, not disabled. The medical examination never revealed any underlying medical condition that caused his obesity.

On appeal the Eighth Circuit agreed, concluding that the ADA’s definition of disability requires the existence of an impairment. Obesity in the absence of a medical cause is a physical characteristic and not an impairment. The court deferred to old EEOC regulations drawing this distinction. The EEOC filed an amicus brief claiming that the ADA Amendments Act broadened the definition of disability to include conditions without a medical cause. However, the Eighth Circuit determined that ADAAA did not change the definition of impairment, and noted that the EEOC has never amended its rules to reflect its current litigation position.

Approximately one-third of adult Americans are considered obese. A decision that would apply the ADA’s protections in the absence of an underlying medical disorder could greatly assist with the ability of rejected applicants  to sue based on claims that their weight was used as a factor in the hiring decision. This decision reflects federal courts’ unwillingness to expand the ADA’s coverage to this extent.