Federal anti-discrimination laws do not protect obese individuals from discrimination. However, the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that obese individuals are members of a protected class under Washington’s Law Against Discrimination.
Taylor v. BNSF
In Taylor v. BNSF, the plaintiff, Casey Taylor (“Taylor”), received a job offer from BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) to work as a technician. The job offer included a physical examination as a prerequisite to beginning work. The physical exam found that Taylor was severely obese, but that he had the physical ability to perform the essential functions of the job. Despite the finding that he could do the job, BNSF told Taylor that he could not work for BNSF unless he either lost ten percent of his body weight (he weighed 256 pounds) and maintained the weight loss for six months or paid for expensive medical testing out of his pocket to further explore potential health risks of his weight.
Taylor did not have a job or health insurance, so he could not afford the additional testing. He sued the railway company for refusing to hire him because of obesity, a perceived disability. The federal trial court dismissed Taylor’s case against BNSF, saying that he did not have a disability. Under federal law, the trial court was correct, but Washington state law differs from state law on the issue of illegal discrimination. Federal law says that obesity is only a protected disability if obesity is the result of some other protected disability. Washington law does not require obesity to be a result of another condition in order to be protected. Taylor did not have a different protected disability.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that state law should have been applied. When the Washington State Supreme Court reviewed the case, it applied Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, which states that a condition is a protected disability if it is a physiological condition or disorder that affects many different body systems. Obesity meets this definition. The Washington Supreme Court held that, under the plain language of the WLAD, obesity is always an impairment. There is no requirement that obesity result from a separate medical condition. As such, employers in Washington State that base employment decisions on an individual’s weight, are likely breaking the law and are subject to claims for discrimination.
If you were treated adversely by your employer or potential employer due to your weight, you may have a legal claim. A Washington employment law attorney can evaluate your case. Contact our office today.