Obsesity under the ADA

On October 3, 2016, the United States Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) denied the petition for a writ of certiorari from Petitioner Morriss.[1] Mr. Morriss appealed the to the Supreme Court after the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals found that obesity is not a disability defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

The facts of the case are as follows. Mr. Morriss applied to a position as a mechanic working under BNSF Railway Co. However, due to his obesity, his conditional offer was rescinded “due to significant health and safety risks associated.”[2] Mr. Morriss was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 285 pounds at the time.[3] It was BNSF’s policy to not to hire a new applicant for a safety-sensitive position if an applicant’s BMI exceeded 40.[4] After receiving a rejection letter, Mr. Morriss filed a suit alleging that BNSF discriminated against him and violated his rights under the ADA.[5]

The District Court ruled in favor of BNSF concluding that obesity was not an actual disability under the ADA.[6] The court noted that for Mr. Morriss to succeed in his claim, he had to show that his obesity was a physical impairment under the ADA.[7] The court was not satisfied with Mr. Morriss’ arguments, thus granting BNSF’s motion for summary judgment.[8]

The Eight Circuit concurred with the District Court concluding that obesity was not a physical impairment.[9] The Court cited the Sixth Circuit holding that “to constitute an ADA impairment, a person’s obesity, even morbid obesity, must be the result of a physiological condition.”[10] The Court also cited the Second circuit that concluded, “obesity, by itself, does not qualify as a physical impairment because physical characteristics that are not the result of a physiological disorder are not considered “impairments” for the purpose of determining either actual or perceived disability.”[11]

Also, a case in Nebraska discussed the issue of obesity and the ADA. The Eight Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision that the employer did not violate the ADA when it required the Plaintiff to undergo a sleep study that would potentially diagnose him of sleep apnea.[12]

Thus, plaintiff’s attempt to broaden the scope of the ADA was unsuccessful, and the decision of the Eight Circuit stands for now. However, employers must still be mindful that although obesity, by itself, cannot be considered impairments, there will be cases where a potential employee may have other diseases or illnesses that accompany his/her obesity. If that is the case, employers must watch out for potential ADA violations for adverse employment decisions against someone who is overweight.

~Author: Yu Up Lee, Emory School of Law 3rd Year Law Student

[1] Morriss v. Bnsf Ry. Co., No. 16-233, 2016 U.S. LEXIS 5199, at 1 (2016).

[2] Morriss v. BNSF Ry. Co., No. 14-3858, 817 F.3d 1104, at 1106 (8th Cir. 2016).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 1112.

[10] Id. at 1109.

[11] Id. (emphasis added).

[12] Kevin Penton, Sleep Test For Overweight Truckers Not Biased, Says Court, Law 360, Oct. 2016, at 1.