Court: It's okay for employers to discriminate against overweight workers

It is okay for employers to refuse jobs to overweight candidates, according to a federal appeals court. However, the Eighth Circuit opinion comes with several caveats that prevent the case from opening the floodgates to discrimination against obese Americans.

The case followed BNSF Railway revoking a conditional job offer to an applicant who was 5’10’’ and weighed 285 pounds. BNSF defended the decision as preventing the risk of injuries. The applicant sued, alleging BNSF discriminated against his “disability,” and cited the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  However, the Eighth Circuit decided obesity is not a disability under the ADA unless the obesity was caused by a medical condition. 

“The 8th Circuit ruled obesity, alone, is not a disability under the ADA. Instead, in order to qualify as a disability, the obesity has to be the result of a physiological condition,” Scott Blake, an attorney who represents employers at Felhaber Larson, told Fox 9.

Because workers whose obesity stems from a medical condition are still protected, Blake says the ruling will not lead to increased terminations or job-offer declines.

“Employers have to be careful crafting their policies to be compliant with the ADA, so a policy that has a blanket exclusion of ‘we don’t hire obese people’ wouldn’t be compliant with the ADA because it doesn’t take into account employees or applicants who may quality as a disabled individual if their obesity if caused by a physiological impairment,” Blake said.

Clay Halunen, a Minneapolis attorney who represents employees, agrees that the ruling won’t have a “significant impact.” And Halunen pointed to Minnesota laws that protect obese workers who are discriminated against because of “perceived” disabilities.

“We all know there are perceptions out there that overweight people are not as healthy, not as good of workers. There’s no support for that, but there are perceptions people have. So if en employee is perceived to be disabled, whether they are or not, and they are terminated or not hired, that is illegal,” Halunen, a partner at Halunen Law, told Fox 9.