Law School Case Brief
Shell v. Burlington N. Santa Fe Ry. - No. 15-cv-11040, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35150 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 5, 2018)
In order to prevail on a discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he is disabled, (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, and (3) the employer took an adverse action against him on the basis of his disability.
Plaintiff Ronald Shell filed n action federal district court against defendant Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company ("BNSF"), alleging that BNSF violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against him based on a disability. Specifically, Shell claimed that BNSF violated the ADA by taking an adverse employment action against him because it regarded him as being disabled as a result of his Class III obesity an accompanying ailments. Shell had been denied a position with BNSF after the company's chief medical officer determined, after medical and physical examinations, that Shell was not medically qualified for a safety-sensitive position due to the health and safety risks associated with his BMI. BNSF filed a motion for summary judgment.
Was BNSF entitled to summary judgment?
The court noted that Shell primarily contended that BNSF regarded him as disabled based on his obesity. The court adopted the majority view that obesity constituted an ADA impairment only when it resulted from an underlying physiological condition or disorder. Here, it was undisputed that BNSF did not believe Shell's obesity to be the result of a physiological disorder, and accordingly BNSF was incapable of perceiving Shell's obesity as a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA. Shell also failed to establish that BNSF perceived his obesity as a disability. However, with regard to Shell's claim that BNSF regarded him as disabled in light of his risk of developing sleep apnea, heart disease or diabetes, there could be no doubt that, at a minimum, there existed a dispute of material fact as to whether BNSF was treating Shell as if he did suffer from those conditions, which, BNSF did not dispute, were capable of constituting impairments under the ADA. The court saw no reason why BNSF should be held to a lesser standard merely because it was engaging in adverse employment actions before an impairment arose, when there was no doubt that BNSF was acting based on its belief that Shell posed a present safety risk as a result of potential disabilities. BNSF was acting based upon an anticipated worst case scenario derived from precisely the sort of myth, fear, or stereotype which the ADA was meant to guard against.
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