The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination in employment against persons who are disabled, as well as those regarded as disabled. Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals joined other federal courts in holding that the ADA does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of potential future disabling medical conditions.
In Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., the plaintiff alleged that he was rejected after applying for work due to his obesity and the employer’s concerns about future medical issues relating to his weight. BNSF prohibits employees with a body mass index over 40 from working in safety-sensitive roles due to concerns over sudden incapacity based on medical conditions associated with their weight. While the plaintiff had no current disabling medical conditions, he alleged that BNSF illegally denied him the job because it regarded him as disabled.
The Seventh Circuit disagreed, overruling a lower court decision denying BNSF’s summary judgment motion. The court noted that the plaintiff did not contend that he had a current disability. He was not regarded as currently disabled because BNSF’s policy is clearly based on fears over development of medical conditions in the future. The Seventh Circuit concluded that the ADA’s anti-discrimination language does not extend to protection against concerns over development of future disabling medical conditions.
This decision raises interesting questions for employers seeking to defend employment decisions made based on concerns over an employee’s weight. If obesity itself is not considered a disability, employers could use the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning to deny employment based on critical safety issues associated with future medical conditions tied to obesity. The employer would need to be careful about not considering the employee or applicant as currently disabled and not denying employment due to fears over the impact of obesity on their medical insurance premiums. If followed by other federal courts, this decision makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to overcome adverse employment decisions tied to safety concerns associated with obesity.