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.
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.