An applicant was told he wasn’t qualified for a safety-sensitive job because of the “significant health and safety risks associated with [his] extreme obesity.” Now the applicant says the employer discriminated against him because of a disability — obesity.
Eric Feit applied to become a conductor for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.
BNSF offered Feit employment conditional on successful completion of a physical exam.
Then, the railroad sent word it could not hire Feit because of risks associated with extreme obesity unless he either lost 10% of his body weight or he completed additional physical exams at his own expense.
In other words, he was too fat to work safely, according to the company.
Feit said he didn’t have $1,800 to spend on a required sleep study, so he set out to lose the weight.
There’s some question as to whether Feit ever lost the weight.
One year after BNSF put the conditions on Feit’s employment, he filed a complaint with the Montana Department of Labor and charged the company with discriminating against him based on a disability.
A hearing officer ruled in Feit’s favor, concluding “BNSF engaged in and is liable for a discriminatory refusal to hire Feit because it regarded him as disabled.” Feit was awarded damages for lost wages and benefits, interest and emotional distress.
Appeals followed, with this question eventually landing in the lap of the Montana Supreme Court: Is obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological condition a physical or mental impairment under state code?
Is obesity now a disability?
The court received this case after the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was amended by Congress. In those amendments, lawmakers signaled that courts had been interpreting the ADA more strictly than they wanted.
So, even though obesity wasn’t considered a disability previously, Montana’s highest court said it must look at the issue through the lens of the amended ADA.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance excludes weight from the definition of impairment only if it is both within normal range and not the result of a physiological disorder.
However, at severe levels, a deviation in weight may constitute an impairment.
The EEOC guidance also says severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight that’s more than double what’s considered normal, is clearly an impairment.
Given that guidance, the court ruled obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological disorder or condition may constitute an impairment if the person’s weight is outside normal range and affects one or more body systems.
Now that the Montana Supreme Court has answered that question, it will be up to a federal court to decide whether Feit was discriminated against because of a disability. So far, the decisions have gone Feit’s way, which makes it likely he will prevail in front of the federal court.
Look into accommodation
What can companies do to avoid a situation like this?
- Don’t assume people can’t perform job tasks because of their size.
- If an employee asks for an accommodation, discuss the situation with the employee to try to find a reasonable solution.
- Train supervisors to recognize a request for an accommodation. It doesn’t have to include the word “accommodation.” It only needs to be a request for a change due to a health condition.
However, companies don’t need to provide accommodations that are difficult or expensive.
What do you think about the court’s ruling in this case? Have you ever addressed an accommodation for someone because they are severely obese? Let us know about it in the comments below.
(BNSF Railway Co. v. Feit, No. OP 11-0463, Supreme Court of MT, 7/6/12)