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Washington State Supreme Court Determines Obesity Discrimination Unlawful

The Washington state Supreme Court has declared it illegal to not offer an employee a job because of their weight. The court ruled the state’s definition of disability applies to obesity.

Federal laws do not explicitly protect against discrimination based on obesity. Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not list weight as a protected category, citing only race, color, sex, religion and national origin. U.S. federal appeals courts have ruled obesity in-and-of-itself is not a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act unless it is the result of another condition. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the most recent case, Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority, in June 2019.

However, the Washington state court cited its own disability law as part of the Washington Law Against Discrimination, ruling obesity can be considered a disability because it, alone, is a physiological disorder the medical community recognizes as a “primary disease.”

The case, Taylor v. Burlington N. R.R. Holdings Inc. includes Casey Taylor, who applied to be an electronic technician with the BNSF Railway Company. The company offered him the job on the condition that he completed a medical history questionnaire and underwent a physical exam. The exam determined he met the physical requirements for the position. He was referred to the company’s chief medical examiner because he was overweight. BNSF revoked Taylor’s employment offer, “due to significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity.”

Though the federal government is unlikely to change its mind on what constitutes as a disability, other avenues can likely also be used against workplace discrimination based on weight. For example, state workplace anti-bullying legislation can apply. Others have cited the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 — which protects against workplace discrimination on the basis of a person’s genetics — as another source of protection for obese employees.

The Washington Supreme Court’s decision will affect employers in state, who will have to look into their policies regarding physical examinations or medical questionnaires during the hiring process and determine how to proceed with issues of obesity. They should also review and possibly amend workplace anti-harassment policies to make sure they protect against bullying and mistreatment on the basis of obesity.

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