Montana's highest court ruled Friday that obesity qualifies as an impairment in some cases under the Montana Human Rights Act, thus allowing the potential for those who are obese to seek greater protection against discrimination.
In a 4-3 decision, Montana Supreme Court found that if a person's weight is outside the normal range and affects one or more body systems, it may constitute a physical or mental impairment — even if it's not a symptom of some underlying disease or health condition as defined under the Americans With Disabilities Act, The Associated Press reported.
The ruling came in a case brought by Eric Feit against the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway(BNSF). Feit alleged that BNSF withdrew a conditional offer to hire him as a conductor trainee because of the "significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity,"
According to court documents:
■ On December 6, 2007, 30-year-old Eric Feit applied for a job as a conductor trainee with BNSF, because of the opportunities for income and benefits that the job provided.
■ On January 16, 2008, Feit received an offer of employment conditioned on him passing a number of preemployment tests, including a physical exam, all of which he satisfactorily completed.
■ Before Feit started work for BNSF on February 18, 2008, he was advised by email (dated February 6, 2008) that he could not start work due to his weight, withdrawing the conditional offer to hire him as a conductor trainee because of the “significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity.”
■ On February 27, 2009, Feit filed an administrative complaint with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) alleging that he had been a victim of discrimination because of a disability — obesity.
■On March 10, 2010, Terry Spear, a department hearing officer agreed with Feit and awarded him the sum of $494,641.23 in damages, saying BNSF refused to hire him “because it regarded him as disabled."
BNSF appealed to the Montana Human Rights Commission, which affirmed the department’s decision, The Billings Gazette writes.
But BNSF didn't stop there, the company then took the matter to federal court, where U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy asked the Montana Supreme Court for clarification.
Joining in the majority decision were Justices Beth Baker, James Nelson, Mike Wheat and Patricia O'Brien Cotter.
Three Montana Supreme Court justices dissented with the majority decision: Justices Brian Morris, Chief Justice Mike McGrath and James Rice.
In a dissent, Associate Justice Brian Morris along with McGrath wrote that established federal law holds that obesity may be considered an impairment only if it is caused by a physiological disorder or condition.
And Rice said recent changes to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act shouldn't be considered when applying Montana's law to Feit's claim, because the changes were made after the dispute between Feit and BNSF, the AP reported.
Federal cases decided under earlier versions of the ADA held that obesity isn't important unless tied to a physiological disorder, he noted.