Are Employees Protected From Employment Discrimination Because Of Obesity?
For more than twenty years, our employment discrimination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida have fought for the rights of employment discrimination victims. Through their decades of experience representing employment discrimination victims, our employment discrimination attorneys in Inverness, Florida have learned that a common employment law myth is that employees cannot be discriminated against because of obesity. This employment law myth is rooted in a misperception regarding the status of obesity under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Indeed, this employment law myth is premised on the mistaken belief that obesity, in and of itself, is a disability under the ADA. In this article, our employment discrimination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida explain how the decision in Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company, 817 F.3d 1104 (8th Cir. 2016) stands for the proposition that obesity, in and of itself, is not a disability under the ADA.
Disabled Employee Rights
The ADA makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against job applicants and employees on the basis of disability. The ADA defines the term “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In order to have a disability within the meaning of the ADA, therefore, a job applicant or employee must have a physical or mental impairment.
The ADA does not define the term “impairment.” However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal administrative agency responsible for implementing and enforcing the ADA, has defined the term “physical impairment” in the Code of Federal Regulations as “any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs (including speech), cardiovascular reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, skin, and endocrine.”
To constitute a disability within the meaning of the ADA, obesity must meet the definition of “physical impairment.” When applied to the condition of obesity, the EEOC’s definition of “physical impairment” can be interpreted expansively or narrowly. Under an expansive interpretation of “physical impairment,” obesity is, in and of itself, a physiological disorder or condition and thus a physical impairment. In other words, obesity, standing alone, is a physical impairment and thus a disability under the ADA, even without evidence that an employee’s obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. Under a narrow interpretation of “physical impairment,” obesity is a physical impairment only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition. In other words, without evidence that an employee’s obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition, obesity is not a physical impairment and thus not a disability under the ADA.
Employment Discrimination Lawsuit
In Morriss, a man named Morriss brought an employment discrimination lawsuit against BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”) pursuant to the ADA. Morriss claims that BNSF violated the ADA by refusing to hire him on the basis of disability.
In March 2011, Morriss applied for a machinist position at BNSF. Morriss was extended a conditional offer of employment. Because the position was safety sensitive, however, the offer was contingent on a satisfactory medical review. In May 2011, BNSF doctors conducted two physical examinations of Morriss: at one, Morriss weighed 285 pounds and had a body mass index of 40.9; at the other, Morriss weighed 281 pounds and had a body mass index of 40.4.
BNSF’s policy was not to hire a new applicant for a safety-sensitive position if the applicant’s body mass index equaled or exceeded 40. Because Morriss’ body mass index exceeded BNSF’s qualification standards, the company’s medical department notified Morriss by email that he was “not currently qualified for the safety sensitive machinist position due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity [body mass index] of 40 or greater.” BNSF then revoked its conditional offer of employment.
Morriss claims that his obesity was a disability under the ADA and that BNSF violated the ADA by revoking its offer of employment because of his obesity.
Obesity, Standing Alone, Is Not A Disability
After the trial court dismissed Morriss’ ADA claim, the threshold issue on appeal before the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was whether Morriss’ obesity met the definition of disability under the ADA because it was a physical impairment. Morriss argued that obesity is, in and of itself, a physiological disorder or condition and thus a physical impairment under the ADA. Thus, according to Morriss, his obesity, even without evidence that his obesity was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition, met the definition of physical impairment and is thus an actionable disability for ADA purposes. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and ruled that for “obesity, even morbid obesity, to be considered a physical impairment, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition.”
In applying this standard to the facts, the Eighth Circuit observed that Morriss “failed to produce any evidence that his obesity was the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition.” Without such evidence, the Eighth Circuit explained, Morriss’ obesity was not a physical impairment and thus was not a disability under the ADA. Because Morriss failed to establish that his obesity was a physical impairment, the Eight Circuit concluded that Morriss’ claim that he was discriminated against on the basis of disability necessarily failed.
Citrus County Employment Discrimination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our employment discrimination attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of employment discrimination victims. If you have experienced disability discrimination in the workplace or have questions about your rights under the ADA, please contact our office for a free consultation with our employment discrimination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes employment discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.