The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held an obese man was not wrongfully denied employment after failing to meet the employer’s physical requirements. The court stated it was not disability discrimination to refuse to employ the man in a safety-sensitive position due to concerns that a physical characteristic (obesity) may lead to physical disability in the future. This case was highly fact-specific, so despite the outcome employers would be wise to understand the specific reasons for the holding and not rely on it as broad precedent.

In Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company, Melvin Morriss received a conditional offer of employment as a machinist with BNSF Railway Company (BNSF). Although he was 5’10” tall, weighing 270 pounds, he denied any present physiological disorders. The safety sensitive position required a Body Mass Index (BMI) number under 40, and Morriss was not hired after his medical examination revealed him to be over that threshold. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s order denying his claims that he was discriminated against unlawfully under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), as amended (ADAA), and the Nebraska Fair Employment Practice Act (NFEPA).

The Eighth Circuit reasoned that obesity alone is not a disability under the ADA or the NFEPA, stating, “for obesity, even morbid obesity, to be considered a physical impairment, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition.”

Employers should take note of two critical facts that strongly supported BNSF’s case. First, BNSF properly did not initially inquire about any physical disabilities before making the conditional offer. Second, Morriss denied any underlying physical condition that caused or contributed to his size, and his physician testified he did not suffer from any medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiac disease or sleep apnea. Thus, while obese and beyond the pre-established safety limits for the job, he suffered from no existing physical impairment. Morriss was not perceived by BNSF to have any current physical impairment as required by the ADA and NFEPA; rather, he was perceived as at risk for developing some related physical impairment in the future as a result of his weight.

The Court held Morriss’s weight was only a physical characteristic, not an existing impairment, and stated:

“The ADA does not prohibit discrimination based on a perception that a physical characteristic – as opposed to physical impairment – may eventually lead to a physical impairment under the Act.”

Employers should be very cautious about this decision and should not extend it beyond its facts. This case does not apply to obese applicants with underlying physical disabilities. Employers should also take care, as did BNSF in this case, not to ask about physical disabilities in the initial stages of the application process.