Obesity Not Caused by a Physiological Condition May Still be a Covered Disability Under the ADA
Eric Feit applied for a job with BNSF Railway Company. The Company gave him a conditional offer of employment as a conductor trainee provided he completed a physical examination, drug screening, background check and BNSF’s Medical History Questionnaire.
On February 6, 2008, BNSF advised Feit that he was not qualified for this “safety sensitive” position because of risks associated with his extreme obesity. The company said he would either have to lose 10% of his body weight or successfully complete additional physical examinations at his own expense.
Feit chose to complete the additional physical examinations but would not complete the sleep study test because it would have cost him $1,800. When the company insisted on completing the sleep study test, Feit decided to try to lose 10% of his weight. Eventually, Feit sued for discrimination based on disability, namely his condition of obesity.
The Court reviewed prior cases under the ADA that stand for the proposition that physical characteristics that are not the result of a physiological disorder may not be considered impairments either as actual or perceived disabilities. BNSF urged that the Court follow this line of cases. The Court refused to do so because “. . . the cases on which BNSF relies all were decided before passage of the ADAAA. In that Act, Congress instructed the courts they were interpreting the statute too restrictively and expressed its specific intent that determination of disability not demand extensive analysis.”
Feit argued that the ADA Amendments Act invalidated many of the prior cases dealing with the issue of obesity as a disability. Further, he argued that the EEOC consistently has held that severe or morbid obesity is an impairment. The EEOC has defined “severe obesity” as being more than 100% over weight norms.
In this case, the Court was construing the Montana Human Rights Act (MHRA), bit it did so in the context of the ADA. It concluded, “Taken together, the ADA, ADAAA, and the EEOC’s interpretation are clear and provide persuasive guidance in interpreting the MHRA. . . Obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological disorder or condition may constitute a ‘physical or mental impairment’ within the meaning of Montana Code Annotated . . . if the individual’s weight is outside ‘normal range’ and affects ‘one or more body systems’ as defined in 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(h)(1)(2011).”
The take-away from this case for readers is that the ADA Amendments Act is having and will continue to have a profound effect on the expansion of disability coverage under the ADA. The case may be found at BNSF Railway Company v. Eric Feit, 2012 MT 147 (S. Ct. Montana 2012).
About the Author
John H. Geaney, a shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates. His blog may be read at http://www.njworkerscompblog.com.
Mr. Geaney is a member of the National Workers' Compensation Defense Network.