AARP asks a federal appeals court to overturn a trial court’s decision improperly narrowing federal employment disability protections.
The BNSF Railway Company revoked its offer to hire Melvin Morriss as a machinist because his body mass index exceeded 40, and the company believed that his obesity would likely cause him to have a disastrous health event, such as a stroke or heart attack. Despite the absence of any evidence that he was a current health or safety risk, a court upheld BNSF’s decision and dismissed Morriss’ claim that he was discriminated against finding that obesity was not an impairment and that BNSF did not perceive him as being impaired. He appealed, and AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s brief in support of his position.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities and people perceived as having disabilities from discrimination in the workplace. Individuals with obesity are frequently stereotyped as lazy, weak-willed and unsuccessful and regarded as solely responsible for their weight. In fact, stigmatization of obesity is often regarded as socially acceptable and perhaps even “motivational” for people to alter the condition.
AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief, filed by attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation, describes these pervasive and widely accepted stereotypes as well as the well-documented marginalization of people with obesity in the workforce. It also details the emerging consensus in the medical community that obesity is not a mere physical descriptor but is itself a disease or disorder with definable effects on the body, which means that it should be considered an “impairment” (and possibly a disability) under the ADA. Finally the brief points out that even if the court does not regard obesity as an actual impairment, certainly BNSF regarded it as such, as its own “safety” rationale for revoking its employment offer demonstrates. Denying work opportunities to individuals whom employers speculate may become ill despite their ability to perform their jobs safely at present is precisely one of the situations the ADA intended to prohibit, as was made extremely clear in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAA) which specifically addressed, codified and expanded the “regarded as disabled” provisions of the ADA.
What’s at Stake
Approximately one-third of AARP’s members are employed full time or part time. Since a disproportionate number of older workers have or are regarded as having one or more disabilities, erroneous applications of disability discrimination law can have an immediate and significant effect on older workers. The trial court’s decision represents a significant step backward from disability discrimination law in spite of the 2008 ADAA.
Morriss v. BNSF Railway Co. is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.