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Is Obesity an ADA-Covered Disability? Courts in Conflict - August 28, 2019

There is debate among employers as to whether or not being morbidly obese is considered an ADA-covered disability. Do you have to accommodate limitations that may be caused by obesity by treating it as a disability?


8th Circuit Decision - No

The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (AK, IA, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD) refused to recognize obesity standing alone as a disability under the ADA in Morriss v. BNSF Railway (2016). BNSF prohibited the employment of people with a body mass index of 40 or higher (according to the Centers for Disease Control a BMI of 30 is considered “obese”). Absent an underlying medical condition which caused the obesity, the 8th Circuit did not consider it to be a disability under the ADA/ADAA.


7th Circuit Decision - No

In Richardson vs. Chicago Transit Authority (June 2019), the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (IL, IN, WI) took the same stance regarding obesity and the ADA: absent “a physiological disorder or condition,” obesity was not an ADA-covered condition.


Employer Approach

Both courts evaluated the approach of the employers in the BNSF and Chicago Transit cases. Did the employers view obesity as a disability? In both instances, the courts found no information that the employers had in fact viewed it to be a disability status.


9th Circuit Disagrees

While the 2nd (CT, NY, VT), 6th (KY, MI, OH, TN), 7th, and 8th Circuits all state that obesity alone is not a disability, the 9th (AK, HI, AZ, CA, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA) Circuit has disagreed, indicating that obesity can be a disability.


Employers with staff in multiple states should be careful to check the law in their actual employee location. Additionally, employers need to be careful relating to secondary issues which can be involved with obesity. Persons with significant or morbid obesity may have other physiological conditions which may fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act such as joint issues, back problems, or diabetes which would require assessment evaluation and potentially, reasonable accommodation.



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