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.
It's the time of year again in Washington State. The state legislature passed a number of bills that Gov. Jay Inslee has signed into law that went into effect on July 1, 2019. Here's what you need to know about some of the new laws:
1. TRAFFIC: For those of you in Western Washington, HOV or carpool lane violations have higher fines. For the simple offender, the ticket goes up an extra $50 for a first-time violation. For those of you who try to be sneaky using stuffed animals, mannequins, and other faux-passengers, the violation is $200 more.
2. Health: The personal or philosophical exception to vaccinating children against measles, mumps, or rubella (the MMR vaccine) is no more. That means that parents must vaccinate their children before sending them to school or licensed day cares. The religious exemption still exists.
3. Employment. A big win for back-to-work moms - employers now have to either provide a private place that is not a bathroom stall or work with the employee to allow her to breast feed and/or pump breast milk in a private setting.
4. Voting. All ballots in Washington will include prepaid postage for all elections to reduce barriers to voting.
5. Residential Tenants: Renters made two big wins. First, a tenant must give 14-days notice for an eviction due to non-payment of rent. This is 11 days more than under prior laws. Second, a landlord must provide sixty (60) days written notice to increase rent. Per usual, a landlord cannot increase rent while a lease is still valid. That means if you signed a year-long residential lease, you get the stated amount of rent during that year - no changes can occur to the amount of monthly rent.
This is just a portion of the new Washington laws. Remember, your city or county may have additional new laws, especially if you're in King County. As always, for our Idaho clients, we're happy to give you a rundown of your rights' in Idaho, as they often vary greatly from those in Washington. We're here to help.
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)
In employment settings, you often hear the term "at will" or "at will employee," but what does that really mean? It means that your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at any time without any notice, so long as the real reason for firing you as the employee is not unlawful in some way. Almost every state has some iteration of at will employment laws. At will employment also means that the employee can leave when she or he wants as well.
Exceptions to at will employment include:
1. Employees with employment contracts (this is rare in Washington and Idaho)
2. Union employees bound by a collective bargaining or union agreement
3. Independent Contractors
If you are an at will employee, you are usually notified of that upon hiring, in an employee handbook, and in employer-led trainings. You should assume that if you are an employee in Washington or Idaho, and you don't fit one of the above-three exceptions, you are at will. Your termination is only unlawful (or, wrongful termination): (1) if you've been unlawfully discriminated against as a member of a protected class (veterans, women, persons of color, religion, sexual orientation); (2) if you've reported a violation of a local, state, or federal violation of a law or regulation; or (3) if your employer failed to follow its handbook procedures in terminating you (such as failure to follow progressive discipline policies that are in writing). We'll talk more about unlawful termination in our next Employment 101 post.
In the meantime, if you are an employee or employer with questions about being terminated or terminating, GIANTlegal is happy to help.
Hiring an attorney is a stressful process. It’s often unclear where to start to choose an attorney or how you’ll pay for an attorney. This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to do so, but a starting point.
Free legal services. If you make 200% or less of the federal poverty line, you are generally entitled to receive free civil legal services in areas like family law (divorce, child custody/paternity, parenting plans), landlord-tenant (housing issues), and related areas. You are always entitled to free criminal help if you qualify—that is a Constitutional right, which we won’t cover here.
200% or less of the federal poverty line in a family of four making $30,750 - $61,500. The income level varies based on number of household members. To obtain free civil legal aid in Washington, you should contact CLEAR, which can connect you to the appropriate legal service providers in your community for your issue. More information can be found here: https://nwjustice.org/clear-hotline.
Reduced cost legal services. If you make 200 – 400% of the federal poverty income level ($61,500 - $123,000 for a family of four), you may be entitled to reduced cost legal services of “low bono” help. One option for this is the Moderate Means Program, which is part of the Washington State Bar Association’s service. Our founding principal helped work on its predecessor program in Spokane called GAAP. In the Moderate Means Program, attorneys agree to lower their hourly rates to assist clients who don’t qualify for free legal aid in areas such as family law, landlord-tenant, and consumer (like debt collection matters). To be referred to a Moderate Means attorney, find more information here: http://wsba.org/Legal-Community/Volunteer-Opportunities/Public-Service-Opportunities/Moderate-Means-Program/Moderate-Means-Legal-Help. Our GIANTlegal attorneys handle Moderate Means clients, but you must be referred by the program.
Contingent legal services. In many areas of the law, attorneys will agree to take your case on a contingent basis, meaning that the attorney does not get paid unless you get paid. This primarily occurs in personal injury (car accidents, medical malpractice, slip and falls), employment (wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination in hiring and firing), consumer collection cases (debt collection), consumer construction cases (for licensed contractors only), and workers compensation (on the job injuries). If your legal matter involves one of these areas of the law, contact an attorney for a free consultation to determine if you need to retain a lawyer. The lawyer will take a percentage of any amounts you receive at the end of your matter.
Flat rate services. For many areas of the law, like basic wills and estate planning, business formations, employee handbooks and employment agreements, attorneys will charge the client a flat rate. If you are a small business or want to open a small business – or even if you aren’t so small – ask your attorney about flat rate services for things like this. At GIANTlegal, we charge flat rates for business setups, employee handbooks, review and drafting of employment contracts, and debtor-side Ch. 7 bankruptcies.
As always, ask around and contact us with questions.
Last week we posted an article from the Journal of Business on our Facebook page regarding the new minimum wage rates in Washington State. The increased minimum wage is the result of an initiative, meaning a vote of the citizens, not a vote of the state legislature. As a result, the minimum wage in Washington State in most counties is now $11.00/hour. There are some exemptions for 14 and 15-year-old workers, and a few counties and municipalities have higher wages than the $11.00. However, all hourly employees must be paid a minimum of $11.00 per hour, for both agricultural and non-agricultural work.
In addition to increased minimum wage that went into effect on January 1, 2017, the City of Spokane enacted (over a mayoral veto) the Spokane Earned Safe and Sick Leave Ordinance. This applies to virtually all companies employing workings within the Spokane City limits. Here’s what you need to know:
Companies that have paid time off (PTO) or equivalent programs can substitute those policies for the earned safe & sick leave, if they are at least as generous as the Spokane ordinance. Employers who do not follow the policy can face monetary penalties and suspension of their business licenses.
Is your Spokane-based business compliant? GIANTlegal can assist you in tracking leave, setting up a PTO plan, and updating your Employee Handbooks to ensure compliance with these issues. Contact us at: email@example.com.
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.