8th Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Obesity Discrimination Case
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit recently affirmed the decision of the U. S. District Court for the District of Nebraska that granted the railroad summary judgment in an obesity and perceived disability discrimination case. The Court held that the railroad did not discriminate against an obese job applicant in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12102 et seq., or as amended, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). After receiving a conditional job offer for a safety sensitive position, the applicant was denied employment “…in accordance with company policy that [the applicant] 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).’” (emphasis in original). The applicant claimed his morbid obesity was an impairment or he was perceived as having an impairment by the railroad.
The Court held obesity may only constitute an impairment if it is “the result of an underlying physiological disorder[.]” The Court based its ruling, in part, on the EEOC Interpretative Guidance defining impairment as “any physiological disorder or condition …affecting one or more body systems[.]” The Court rejected the argument that morbid obesity is an impairment if it is either outside the normal range or the result of a physiological condition. “Instead, like the district court, we conclude a more natural reading of the interpretative guidance is 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 a result of a physiological disorder. Both requirements must be satisfied before a physical impairment can be found.”
The Court also found no evidence of perceived disability discrimination. Appellant argued that the railroad “refused to hire him because it considered his obesity to present an unacceptably high risk that he would develop certain medical conditions in the future, and that [the railroad] therefore perceived him as having a current physical impairment.” The Court explained, “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. Instead, the plain language of the ADA prohibits actions based on an existing impairment or the perception of an existing impairment. As noted by the district court, the EEOC’s own interpretive guidance specifically states that ‘the definition [of impairment] … does not include characteristic predisposition to illness or disease.'” 29 C.F.R. Pt. 1630, App’x § 1630.2(h).