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Morriss v. Bnsf Railway Co.

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

November 20, 2014



RICHARD G. KOPF, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on cross-motions for summary judgment.[1] For purposes of deciding these motions, there are no genuine issues of material fact.

On May 3, 2011, the plaintiff, Melvin A. Morriss III ("Morriss"), received a conditional offer of employment from the defendant, BNSF Railway Company ("BNSF"), to work as a machinist. The job offer was withdrawn on May 18, 2011, when Dr. Sharon Clark, a BNSF medical review officer, determined in accordance with company policy that Morriss was "Not currently qualified for the safety sensitive Machinist position due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity (Body Mass. Index of 40 or greater)." (Morriss depo. Ex. 11 (filing 101-2 at 132) (emphasis in original).)[2]

Morriss claims he was not hired by BNSF because of a disability, or a perceived disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., as amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADAAA"), Pub.L. No. 110-325, 122 Stat. 3553, and in violation of the Nebraska Fair Employment Practice Act ("NFEPA"), Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 48-1101 et. seq. [3] Because disability discrimination claims under the NFEPA are analyzed using the same framework as claims brought under the ADA, see Orr v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 297 F.3d 720, 723 (8th Cir. 2002), no separate analysis of the state law claim is necessary.

"To establish discrimination under the ADA, an employee must show that [he or] she (1) is disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) is a qualified individual under the ADA, and (3) has suffered an adverse employment action because of [his or] her disability." Hill v. Walker, 737 F.3d 1209, 1216 (8th Cir. 2013). "The definition of disability in [the ADA] shall be construed in favor of broad coverage... to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(4)(A). "The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual, [4] a record of such impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment." Norman v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 606 F.3d 455, 459 (8th Cir. 2010); see also 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1). "[T]hough the ADAAA makes it easier to prove a disability, it does not absolve a party from proving one." Neely v. PSEG Tex., Ltd. P'ship, 735 F.3d 242, 245 (5th Cir. 2013) (second and third alterations in original). Under the ADA as amended,
An individual meets the requirement of "being regarded as having such an impairment" if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
42 U.S.C. § 12102(3)(A).

Tramp v. Associated Underwriters, Inc., 768 F.3d 793, 804-05 (8th Cir. 2014).

A physical "impairment" is defined in regulations promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as "[a]ny physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine." 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1).[5] Consistent with this definition, it has been held "that to constitute an ADA impairment, a person's obesity, even morbid obesity, must be the result of a physiological condition." E.E.O.C. v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d 436, 443 (6th Cir. 2006) (truck driver's weight of 405 pounds was not an impairment under ADA since he was not aware of any physiological cause for his condition); see also Francis v. City of Meriden, 129 F.3d 281, 286 (2d Cir. 1997) (physical characteristics that are not the result of a physiological disorder are not considered impairments for the purposes of determining either actual or perceived disability; generally, weight is not such an impairment).

"It is important to distinguish between conditions that are impairments and physical, psychological, environmental, cultural, and economic characteristics that are not impairments." 29 C.F.R. Pt 1630, App. (EEOC Interpretive Guidance on Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act).[6] "The definition of the term impairment' does not include physical characteristics such as eye color, hair color, left-handedness, or height, weight, or muscle tone that are within normal' range and are not the result of a physiological disorder." Id. (emphasis supplied).[7] "The definition, likewise, does not include characteristic predisposition to illness or disease." Id.

When he was asked during discovery to provide factual support for his alleged disability, Morriss indicated he had no impairments that limited his ability to perform the functional duties of the machinist position, he required no accommodations to perform the job duties safely, and he had no medical reports describing a disability. (Plaintiff's answers to interrogatories (filing 98-3) at 8.) Morriss further stated he "has never had any work restrictions, and did not have any at the time of his application for employment with Defendant." ( Id. at 10.) Morriss testified he did not think he had a physical disability and was not aware of any underlying medical condition that contributed to his obesity or made it difficult for him to lose weight. (Morriss depo. (filing 98-2) at 18-19.) He stated his weight "has no physical limitations on me." ( Id. at 19.) His personal physician likewise testified that Morriss did not suffer from any medical condition associated with obesity, such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiac disease, or sleep apnea, that Morriss had no limitations placed on his activities, and that Morriss was fully capable of performing the work required by the machinist position. (Plaintiff's supporting brief (filing 100) at 3-4.) In answering a medical questionnaire in connection with his employment application on May 5, 2011, Morriss described his health as "good" and indicated he had no difficulties or limitations in his daily activities. (Filing 98-20 at 7-8.) Morriss admits BNSF had no information to the contrary. (Plaintiff's supporting brief (filing 100) at 8-11.)

There is no evidence that Morriss's obesity was caused by a physiological disorder, nor is there any evidence that his weight affected one or more body systems. In short, there is no evidence that Morriss had a physical impairment.[8] Consequently, his claim of discrimination based on actual disability necessarily fails.

There also is no evidence to support Morriss's claim that BNSF regarded him as having an impairment. It is undisputed that Morriss "was denied employment... not because of any then current health risk identified by BNSF..., but because BNSF believed by having a BMI of 40, [Morriss] would or could develop such health risks in the future." (Plaintiff's supporting brief (filing 100) at 11.) As stated above, the definition of impairment "does not include characteristic predisposition to ...

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