Can an Employer Refuse to Hire You Because of Your Weight?
When obesity is – and isn’t – a disability
Can a company deny employment to an otherwise-qualified candidate just because he or she is obese?
Many people would argue that a person’s professional competence has no relation to the number that shows up on their bathroom scale. Despite that, a recent study by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania shows that people who are overweight are consistently perceived as being less competent when they’re job hunting.
But what if a company flat-out admits that it didn’t hire someone because of his or her weight?
A recent court case considered this question. The ruling offers some insight into when and how overweight individuals may be protected from discrimination.
Conditional Job Offer
Melvin Morriss applied for a machinist position with BNSF Railway. The company extended him a conditional offer of employment. However, because the position was safety sensitive, he was required to pass a medical exam first.
Morriss filled out the medical questionnaire and noted that he was pre-diabetic, but otherwise in good health. His physical didn’t reveal any medical problems. However, at two separate exams for the company, Morriss’s Body Mass Index (BMI) was shown to be 40.9 and 40.4.
The company notified Morriss that he wasn’t qualified for the job because they didn’t hire anyone with a BMI of 40 or over.
Morriss spoke to an attorney. He sued the company, alleging that his obesity was a disability under the ADA and that the company had discriminated against him because of his condition.
The company countered that Morriss wasn’t protected by the ADA because his obesity did not cause any impairments. There was no medical evidence that Morriss’ size was caused by a medical condition. Because Morriss’s weight was not a protected characteristic, the company reasoned, it within its rights to refuse employment.
However, the company admitted that it didn’t hire individuals who had a BMI over 40 because it believed those people would be more likely to develop health problems in the future.
Morriss’s team pointed to this statement as proof that the company believed that Morriss would eventually develop a disability.
But, unfortunately for Morriss, the court sided with the company. It ruled that Morriss wasn’t disabled, therefore the company had not violated the ADA.
The court noted that the ADA “does not prohibit discrimination based on a perception that a physical characteristic—as opposed to a physical impairment—may eventually lead to a physical impairment.” Rather, the ADA only prohibits discriminatory actions based on an existing impairment, not the potential predisposition to develop an impairment in the future.
(The case discussed here is Morriss v. BNSF Railway.)
When Obesity is a Disability
This case is a strong example of how ADA coverage is considered on a case-by-case basis.
An obese person who suffers from heart issues, diabetes, or other medical conditions may qualify for protection under the ADA. However, if weight can be isolated to a simple characteristic that does not affect any other bodily systems, as in Morriss’s case, ADA protection may be harder to come by.
Questions involving the ADA are extremely specific to the person and his or her circumstances. That’s why it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney if you believe you’ve been unlawfully discriminated against because of a disability.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation to find out more about your rights.