Overview: The plaintiff had worked at a rail yard, occupying different positions, for over 33 years. Some of those positions included: a grounds man, a driver, and a crane operator, and all indications are that the plaintiff was a productive and skilled employee. The rail yard the plaintiff was employed at was eventually purchased by another rail yard company. The plaintiff then worked for a company that the new rail yard company contracted with to handle its operations. Later, the company decided to assume the rail yard’s operations itself which ended the employment of the plaintiff and many others. However, the rail yard company invited those employees to apply for new positions.
The plaintiff applied to work as an intermodal equipment operator, which would require the employee to perform three roles: a grounds man, a hostler (someone who moves locomotives in and out of service facilities), and a crane operator. The rail yard company classified this position as “safety-sensitive” because it required working on and around heavy equipment. The plaintiff was offered conditional employment with one of the conditions being the plaintiff passed a medical evaluation. The medical exam, performed by the rail yard company’s chief medical officer, reported that the plaintiff was 5’10” tall and weighed 331 pounds, which translates to a body-mass index (BMI) of 47.5. The rail yard company does not hire applicants for “safety-sensitive” positions if their BMI is 40 or above, for they pose a higher risk of developing obesity-related health conditions such as sleep apnea, diabetes, heart disease and more which could impact their work functions. Following the rail yard company’s BMI policy, the chief medical officer decided that the plaintiff was not medically qualified for the job. The rail yard company informed the plaintiff of disqualification for the job; however the company would reconsider plaintiff for the position if he lost at least 10% of his weight, maintained that weight for at least six months, and submitted to further medical evaluations, if requested.
The plaintiff sued the rail yard company under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that the rail yard company discriminated against him based on a disability. The plaintiff argued that the company refused to hire him solely because it believed his obesity presented an unacceptably high risk that he would develop certain medical conditions that would suddenly incapacitate him on the job. The rail yard company moved for summary judgment, arguing that the ADA’s definition of “disability” was not met where an employer regards an applicant as not presently having a disability but at high risk of developing one. The District Court denied the rail yard company’s motion, concluding that the ADA does reach discrimination based on expectation of a future impairment.
Outcome: The rail yard company appealed the lower court’s denial of summary judgment. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the lower court erred in denying the employer's motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff had not established that the company regarded him as having a disability or that he was impaired – just that he might one day develop an impairment. Without this showing, plaintiff can’t prevail on his claim of discrimination and the employer was entitled to summary judgment. In addition, the appellate court held that the plaintiff’s obesity – lacking evidence of a physiological cause – is not a disability that the ADA protects. Further, the court held that the rail yard could not regard the plaintiff has having a disability that didn’t exist. The Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Impact: This employer friendly ruling allows employers to deny applicants employment where their physical condition is likely to lead to an impairment that could impact their work ability where that physical condition does not have a physiological cause.