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Obesity as a Protected Trait in the Workplace

If your employer discriminates against you at work because of obesity, do you have the same recourse as an employee who is the victim of discrimination based on race, religion, or another protected trait? Or, if obesity cannot be considered a protected trait, can it be classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? A recent case was decided, Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company, which examined whether obesity is a legally protected disability under the ADA.

In short, the Eighth Circuit held that “obesity that is not caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition is not a covered physical impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Will this decision have an impact in other regions of the country? And will it affect workplace discrimination claims related to obesity?

Obesity as a Serious Issue in American Workplaces

Indeed, employment discrimination due to obesity is a looming topic in the United States. One senior trial attorney with the EEOC states that “the law protects morbidly obese employees and applicants from being subjected to discrimination because of their obesity.”

But simply being obese does not mean that you immediately can be classified as a person with a disability. As the court in Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company pointed out, other courts have only considered obesity to be a protected disability under the ADA in situations where there is no underlying physiological disorder. Indeed, the Morriss court cited a decision from the Sixth Circuit, EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc. (2006), which held that “to constitute an ADA impairment, a person’s obesity, even morbid obesity, must be the result of a physiological condition.” Similarly, the Second Circuit reasoned that “obesity, by itself, does not qualify as a physical impairment” unless it is “the result of a physiological disorder.”

Impact of the ADA Amendments Act on Obesity Case Law

As you can see, the Eighth Circuit’s recent decision is in line with these previous decisions. Although these court decisions occurred prior to the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) in 2011, which requires that “the definition of disability should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage of individuals,” the Eighth Circuit’s decision nonetheless upheld those prior court decisions concerning obesity and workplace disabilities.

Why did the Eighth Circuit decide the way it did? The court reasoned that, in enacting the ADAAA, Congress did not reference the decisions from the Sixth Circuit and the Second Circuit concerning obesity as a disability, and a “physical impairment”—which one must have in order to have a legally protected disability—still is defined by a “physiological disorder or condition.”

In other words, the ADAAA, according to the Morriss court, did not change the way in which we might define obesity as a legally protected disability. The court explained, as such, that “pre-ADAAA case law holding that obesity qualifies as a physical impairment only if it results from an underlying physiological disorder or condition remains relevant and persuasive.”

Contact a Labor Lawyer

Case law on obesity as a protected trait, and obesity as a legally protected disability, continues to evolve. If you believe you were the victim of workplace discrimination because of obesity, an experienced employment discrimination attorney can help. Contact Scott • Wagner and Associates, P.A. to learn more about filing a claim.

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