Employers have a right to consider obesity as a safety risk and workers who don’t meet weight-related health standards are not legally disabled, under a federal court ruling today cheered by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
“Obesity may be a major public health problem, but it’s not necessarily a disability,” said Karen Harned, Executive Director of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center. “More than a third of the U.S. population is obese, according to the CDC. Categorizing obesity as a disability would send trial lawyers into a feeding frenzy.”
The 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals this morning clarified the definition under which an employer can be sued for discrimination because of a disability. In the case of Melvin Morriss, III v BNSF Railroad Co., the plaintiff was denied a job as a machinist because of his high Body Mass Index (BMI), a measurement of obesity.
Under its policy, BNSF “will not hire a new applicant for a safety-sensitive position if his Body Mass Index (BMI) equaled or exceeded 40.” Morriss sued the company on the grounds that his rights were violated under American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“The Court today ruled correctly that obesity itself is not a sufficient argument,” said Harned. “Plaintiffs must prove that their obesity caused some sort of physical or mental impairment that severely affected major life functions.
“The railroad company had a clear policy against hiring an unhealthy individual for safety-sensitive positions,” she continued. “If the court would have ruled in favor of the plaintiff and expanded the scope of the ADA, small business owners could have been held liable for policies that are set in place for everyone’s safety.”
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