Montana Court Rules Obesity Discrimination Illegal

The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that obesity discrimination is illegal under its state human rights law, as reported last week by the San Francisco Chronicle. The court’s decision marks an unprecedented step towards recognition of obesity as a protected status under both state and federal antidiscrimination laws.
The Montana Supreme Court made its ruling in response to a certified question from the District Court of Montana on the state’s stance on the issue. The case in question, BNSF Railway Co. v. Feit, had been filed under the Montana Human Rights Act by an applicant who claims he was rejected for a position at a railway company because of his obesity. Eric Feit was offered a conditional offer of employment as a conductor trainee at the company, contingent on his passing a drug screening, physical examination and background check. After passing all these screening tests, the company told him that they would only hire him if he lost 10 percent of his body weight and underwent further physical examinations at his own expense, including s sleeping study.
Feit lost the weight, and took all the required examinations except one. He was unable to take the sleeping study however, which at $1,800 he could not afford. After the company refused to hire him, Feit filed suit against the railway company for discriminating against him because of a physical disability under the Montana Human Rights Act.
The Montana Department of Labor found in favor of Feit, holding that the company had unlawfully discriminated against him because of a disability, his obesity. He won again when the railway company appealed to the Montana Human Rights Commission. The railway company again appealed to the District Court of Montana, which then requested the Montana Supreme Court rule on whether obesity was a disability covered under the Montana state antidiscrimination laws.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled that obesity was included as a disability covered by the Montana state antidiscrimination laws. As part of Montana’s human rights law was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act, in making its ruling the court drew on EEOC interpretations and guidelines and federal court decisions interpreting the ADA and its amendments in the ADAA. The Montana Supreme Court however departed from both federal and other state decisions in finding that obesity, without any underlying physiological condition, could be considered a disability.
It is the Montana Supreme Court’s finding that no underlying physiological condition is needed for obesity to be a disability that is almost unprecedented. Few other state or federal courts have so ruled that obesity by itself could trigger the protections of the antidiscrimination laws. The court stated that in order for obesity to be considered a disability, the weight need only be outside the normal range and affect one or more body systems.
The case follows the ruling just in April in EEOC v. Resources for Human Development, Inc., where a Louisiana federal court also ruled that obesity is protected under the ADA, even if there is no underlying physiological condition. This decision was made following the amendments of the ADA in 2008 with the ADAA; before then most courts had ruled that obesity unrelated to a medical condition was not covered by the antidiscrimination laws. As few other courts have followed suit since the Louisiana court ruling in finding obesity a protected class, this Montana case may at last signal an important shift in the legal protection of the obese.

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