Obesity may not yet be an official disability under federal employment law. But as a recent case shows, it might as well be.
It’s a long, complicated case, so we’ll jump to the end:
The decision finally came down to one question: Could an employee’s obesity be counted as an “impairment” (read: disability) even if that obesity has no underlying physical cause?
According to the State Supreme Court in Montana, the answer’s yes.
Was he discriminated against?
At the center of the case is Eric Feit, who applied for a job with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company.
According to court papers, BNSF offered Eric Feit a conditional offer of employment as a conductor trainee, conditioned on his successful completion of a physical examination, drug screening and a background investigation.
Later, BNSF informed Feit he was not qualified for his “safety sensitive” position because of the “significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity.”
BNSF told Feit he would not be considered for the job unless he either lost 10% of his body weight, or successfully completed additional physical examinations at his own expense. Regardless of the test results, BNSF did not guarantee Feit a job.
With the exception of a sleep study test, Feit successfully completed the additional physical exams BNSF requested. The sleep test cost at least $1,800, and Feit said he couldn’t afford it.
BNSF informed Feit that it would not consider him for the conductor trainee position unless he completed the sleep study.
Since he couldn’t pay for a sleep study, Feit set out to lose 10% of his weight. There’s some dispute over whether her actually lost the weight, or whether the railroad ever found about his weight loss, but the bottom line is this:
Feit filed a complaint with the Montana Department of Labor and charged BNSF with discriminating against him based on a physical or mental disability.
Long slog through the courts
The Department of Labor sided with Feit, saying the employer refused to hire him because of a perceived disability. The state Human Rights Commission upheld the DOL decision.
The company then took the case to federal district court, which sent the matter back to the state Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court referenced the EEOC’s Compliance Manual, which states that “[N]ormal deviations in height, weight, or strength that are not the result of a physiological disorder are not impairments.. . . . At extremes, however, such deviations may constitute impairments.”
But here’s the key: The Manual also states that “severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm . . . is clearly an impairment.”
And on that basis, the court sided with Feit.
Another thing to consider
It’s becoming pretty clear that obesity is going to be a pretty commonly claimed disability in future employee lawsuits. And employers are going to have to add the question of an employee’s weight to the list of legally sensitive issues that must be taken into consideration during the hiring, firing and discipline process.
The case is BNSF Railway Company v. Feit.