Washington Makes Obesity Discrimination Illegal. Will Other States Follow?

A recent ruling in Washington State now makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against hiring individuals who are obese. Other states may soon be following Washington’s example.

According to a recent article by Rosie Bradbury which appeared on the HR Dive website, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that obesity is considered a disability.  

According to the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), employers are prohibited from discriminating against an employee because of a disability. This ruling broadens the scope of current civil rights at the federal level.   

Washington State now joins Michigan, which also has a law against discrimination against someone based on weight.   Earlier this year, Massachusetts lawmakers introduced legislation making it illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of height or weight.  Cities like Washington D.C. and San Francisco have city ordinances which prohibit discrimination on the basis of weight or general appearance.

Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, obesity is not a protected status according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) unless it is due to a physiological condition or underlying disorder. 

In the case, Taylor v. Burlington N.R.R. Holdings, Inc. the plaintiff, Casey Taylor and his wife, Angelina Taylor, sued the company alleging Burlington Northern Railroad (BNSF) discriminated against Casey Taylor because they considered him to be morbidly obese.  

BNSF had made a job offer to Taylor contingent on a physical exam and medical history questionnaire. The exam revealed that Taylor had a BMI of 40 percent, which was considered to be morbidly obese. Taylor was informed that it was BNSF company policy not to hire anyone with a BMI of more than 35 and the company withdrew their offer of employment to Taylor.

Taylor filed suit against BNSF in King County Superior Court; but BNSF had the case moved to federal court, requesting a summary judgment. The United States District

Court for the Western District of Washington agreed and the granted summary judgment in favor of BNSF, ruling that in order to prove discrimination in the case, it would need to be shown that Taylor’s obesity fell in line with ADA requirements.

Taylor appealed the ruling and the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that obesity:

“always qualifies as an impairment under the plain language of RCW 49.60.040(7)(c)(i) because it is recognized by the medical community as a ‘physiological disorder, or condition’ … therefore, if an employer refuses to hire someone because the employer perceives the applicant to have obesity, and the applicant is able to properly perform the job in question, the employer violates this section of the WLAD.”