Washington Supreme Court rules that obesity can be considered a disability in an employment law setting
Today, the Washington Supreme Court issued its ruling in Taylor v. Burlington N. R.R. Holdings, Inc., in which the Court answered a distinct question about whether or not obesity is a disability for purposes of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). As we've talked about before, the WLAD protects employees from discrimination in hiring, firing, retention, and promotion by Washington employers. WLAD applies to a number of protected classes (age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), but also to disabilities.
The Washington Supreme Court was asked if the WLAD protected obese employees in hiring decisions when a person's condition of obesity would not impact the requirements of job. Specifically, the court considered if it was okay for an employer to choose not to hire an obese potential employee who was applying for a job that would not be impacted by his weight.
In a 7-2 decision, the Washington Supreme Court held that obesity is a disability under the WLAD because it is an "impairment" that is recognized by the medical community as a physiological disorder or condition. The court went on to make clear that if an employer refused to hire an employee who the employer believes is obese, and that applicant is otherwise qualified and able to do the job, the employer is in violation of the WLAD and has unlawfully discriminated against that potential employee.
To be clear, this ruling is only limited to the State of Washington. It does not change the fact that certain disabilities, including obesity, may keep an employee from doing a job such that an employer need not hire that employee or provide an accommodation. For example, an employee who is or becomes blind is not entitled to work at a job that requires her to drive. It would not be unlawful discrimination under the WLAD for the employer to not hire that blind employee as a driver. But, this ruling is significant in that a person's actual or perceived obesity cannot be a determinative factor in an employer's hiring decisions.
Have questions about this or other employment rights in Washington or Idaho? We're happy to discuss them with you.
Previously, we talked about wrongful termination in Washington. The rules in Idaho are similar, but not quite the same as in Washington. Here's a summary:
Idaho is an an at-will work state, like Washington (for more details, see our previous blog post about being an at-will employee: employment-law-101-what-is-at-will-employment.html). In general, both the employer and the employee have the right to end the employment relationship in an at will setting for no reason. Certain exceptions apply in Idaho, including, but not limited to: (1) presence of an employment contract; (2) unlawful discrimination; (3) violations of collective bargaining agreements for union employees; or (4) retaliation for asserting your rights as an employee. Since employment contracts are rare in most industries, we'll focus on unlawful discrimination.
Idaho follows federal law with regard to protected classes in employment -- groups of people who cannot be fired from a job simply because of his or her membership in that class with no other legitimate reason for the termination. Those protected classes include: age (over 40), race, color, national original, sex, pregnancy, religion, and disability. Employers with five or more employees must comply with these laws. Idaho employers can always fire an employee in one of these classes for cause, meaning the employee violated a company policy or law.
In Idaho, the Idaho Commission on Human Rights (IHRC) investigates claims of employment discrimination based on Idaho state law. Federal law discrimination violations are handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC). If an employee in Idaho is alleging discrimination as the basis for his or her wrongful termination (or other negative employment decision, like failure to promote), she may be required to file a complaint with the IHRC, the EEOC, or both.
There are other instances in Idaho where an employee may have been wrongfully terminated, including filing for workers' compensation benefits, whisteblowing (reporting violations to a governmental agency), military leave, jury duty, and family and medical leave.
Employees: if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated in Idaho, talk to an employment attorney licensed in your state as soon as possible. Certain strict timelines exist for you to take action. The consultation with an employment attorney should be free. Employers: if you have questions about hiring and firing an employee who may be in a protected class, contact an Idaho employment attorney to avoid wrongful termination claims.
Last week, we talked about at-will employment. In general, in Washington, your employer can terminate your employment for any reason or no reason, if you are an at-will employee.
But, what if you think the reason you were terminated was wrong? What exactly is wrongful termination. In Washington, wrongful termination will generally fall under the following categories: (1) employment discrimination; (2) retaliation for filing a complaint; and (3) permissible leave or time off. The following is a short summary of what these categories mean:
1. Employment Discrimination. State and federal law prohibit adverse employment actions (not hiring someone, firing someone, or not promoting someone, for example) based on discrimination. In Washington, employers cannot discriminate based on the following categories: age (over 40), race, gender, sexual orientation, sexual or gender identity, pregnancy, veterans status, religion, ethnicity, and marital status. If your membership in one of these groups is the reason for your adverse employment action, you may have a legal claim for damages.
2. Retaliation for Complaints. A variety of Washington state and federal laws protect employees from being fired for reporting wage or hour claims or for reporting violations of codes or laws (like reporting an employer for not following required environmental policies when disposing of chemicals). It is not retaliation to be terminated for challenging an employer's policies that are lawful, but you do not like.
3. Permitted Leave or Time Off. Employers in Washington are required to provide unpaid leave for sick employees and family members under the FMLA. Some counties require employers to allow employees paid leave for illness or domestic violence situations (including Spokane County). Employees in the military are permitted leave or time off for required military duty. Employers are also required to provide unpaid leave for jury duty and pregnancy.
Wrongful termination is not: being fired for being late or violating employer policy or being fired for disagreeing with your boss.
These are only general categories, and we'll delve further into the above categories in future Employment Law 101 posts. If you suspect you've been wrongfully terminated, you should contact an attorney because you have varied timelines to pursue an action.
Up next: Wrongful Termination (Idaho)
All blog posts are written by members of the GIANTlegal team, unless otherwise indicated. Information contained in our blog does not constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.