U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Whether to Review Eighth Circuit Decision Holding that Obesity is Not a Disability Under the ADA


By: Barry Brownstein
This past week the Supreme Court of the United States was asked to review the April 5, 2016 decision of the Eighth Circuit that held obesity is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The U.S. Court of Appeals of the Eight Circuit held that plaintiff Melvin Morriss, who was denied a job by BNSF Railway Company because his Body Mass Index was over 40, was not disabled because his obesity was not a result of some other physiological disorder. The ADA, along with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations, states that in order for obesity to be considered a physical impairment the obesity must be the result of a physiological condition. The Eighth Circuit holding shows how after the 2008 ADA amendments were implemented to make “disability” broader in scope, its use in employment litigation may be very much limited.
The Supreme Court must now decide whether or not to review the holding of the Eighth Circuit after Morriss appealed the decision. Despite the arguably rational reasoning for the Eighth Circuit’s decision on April 5, 2016, granting the appeal and reviewing the holding would clear up the confusion regarding obesity as a basis for a discrimination claim. The Second and Sixth Circuits have agreed with the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning that absent some underlying physiological condition, obesity, even morbid obesity, is not a disability covered under the ADA. Despite the courts’ broad exclusion of obesity as a disability, other courts have held differently. In BNSF Railway Company v. Feit, the Supreme Court of Montana held that major obesity, or body weight that is extremely above normal, may be considered an impairment based on the EEOC guidelines. After the Feit holding in 2012, it seemed as though obesity may become a common disability used by disgruntled employees; however, as demonstrated in the Morriss matter, obesity as a disability is still ambiguous.
If the Supreme Court decides to review the Eighth Circuit decision, it will be faced with two questions: 1) Should the level of obesity mater? and 2) Should obesity as a result of diabetes be distinguished from obesity as a result of overeating?
As for the first question presented, it was argued in the lower court that obesity alone, when at an extreme level, is a protected impairment despite the plain language of the ADA. While it may seem that this argument is rational from a public policy standpoint, there is no authority that supports such a claim. In regards to the second presented question, the language of the ADA states that a physical impairment must be a result of some physiological condition. Solely being overweight is not a physical impairment, and in the eyes of the court, it must be proven that the obesity is a result of some other condition and not just an uncontrollable sweet tooth. While the issue may be tough to resolve and opinions may vary, we can agree that if the Supreme Court decides to review the Eighth Circuit decision, it will have significant implications.