EMPLOYER UPHELD IN REFUSING TO HIRE MORBIDLY OBESE PLAINTIFF

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The subject of morbidly obese plaintiffs under the amended Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA) has generated a lot of interest as well as litigation.  The most recent application of the law occurred in a case in which an employer was granted summary judgment, against both a "disability" theory and a "regarded as" theory under the expanded and amended ADAAA.  Morriss v. BNSF Railway Co., 32 AD Cases 1173 (C.A. 8, April 5, 2016). 

The plaintiff had applied for a machinist position with the railroad company, and his offer of employment was contingent on a satisfactory medical review.  The plaintiff filed suit contending that the employer discriminated against him when it revoked its offer of employment based on his obesity.  He claimed that his obesity was an actual disability under the ADA and that the employer regarded his obesity as an actual disability.  The employer was granted summary judgment on both counts and the plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the lower court's summary judgment ruling for the employer, and its analysis of the case is instructive.  First, the court found 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 the result of a physiological disorder.  Both requirements must be satisfied before a physical impairment, and thus an ADA violation, can be found.  Second, the court found that earlier cases dealing with the issue were still applicable, as the post-ADAAA era only changed the courts' interpretation of "substantially limits" and "major life activity" to insure broad coverage of individuals with disabilities, but Congress gave no instructions regarding the definition of "physical impairment."

Next, the court found that obesity, in and of itself, is not a physical impairment simply because it has been labeled "severe," "morbid" or "Class III" obesity.  Instead, weight is merely a physical characteristic - not a physical impairment - unless it is both outside the normal range and a result of an underlying physiological disorder.  In so ruling, the court rejected a provision in the EEOC Compliance Manual which states that "severe obesity," "body weight more than 100% over the norm" is an impairment.  Even after the enactment of the ADAAA, to be considered a physical impairment, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition.

In rejecting the argument that the employer regarded him as having a physical impairment, the appeals court found that the ADA does not prohibit discrimination based on a perception that a physical characteristic - as opposed to a physical impairment - may eventually lead to a physical impairment as defined under the Act.  As noted by the district court, the EEOC's own interpretive guidance specifically states that, "the definition [of impairment]. . . does not include characteristic pre-disposition to illness or disease."  29 C.F.R. Part 1630.

Editor's Note - This ruling provides a useful precedent to employers in defending obesity discrimination cases.  It also furnishes some useful explanations of the application of the ADAAA.  However, obesity cases remain controversial and ripe candidates for litigation.

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