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Obesity can be a disability, at least in Montana
July 09, 2012 by Ross Runkel at LawMemo

Obesity can be a disability, at least in Montana.

Full decision: BNSF Railway v. Feit (Montana 07/06/2012)

Feit got a ruling from the Montana Department of Labor that BNSF Railway discriminated against him by refusing to hire him because BNSF regarded him as being disabled due to his obesity.

BNSF then went to federal court to get a review of whether it violated the Montana Human Rights Act (MHRA) by refusing to hire Feit because of his obesity.

The federal court then asked the Supreme Court of Montana to decide how to rule, asking this question: Is obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological condition a "physical or mental impairment" as it is used in Montana Code Annotated section 49-2-101(19)(a)?

The Montana Supreme Court answered with a qualified yes. The court answered: Obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological disorder or condition may constitute a "physical or mental impairment" within the meaning of Montana Code Annotated section 49-2-101(19)(a) if the individual's weight is outside the "normal range" and affects "one or more body systems" as defined in 29 CFR 1630.2(h)(1)(2011).

The federal court laid out these facts:

1. BNSF offered Eric Feit a conditional offer of employment as a conductor trainee. The employment was conditioned upon successful completion of a physical examination, drug screening, background investigation, proof of employment eligibility, and BNSF’s Medical History Questionnaire.

2. On February 6, 2008, BNSF informed Feit he was not qualified for his “safety sensitive” position because of the “significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity.”

3. BNSF told Feit he would not be considered for the job unless he either lost 10% of his body weight, or successfully completed additional physical examinations at his own expense. Regardless of the test results, BNSF did not guarantee Feit a job.

4. With the exception of a sleep study test, Feit successfully completed the additional physical exams BNSF requested. The sleep test cost at least $1,800, and Feit could not afford the test.

5. Because BNSF informed Feit that it would not consider him for the conductor trainee position unless he completed the sleep study, Feit set out to lose 10% of his weight.

6. A genuine dispute exists regarding whether BNSF received documentation of Feit’s weight loss.

The Montana Supreme Court noted that the EEOC Interpretive Guidance distinguished between conditions that were impairments and conditions that were simply physical characteristics, which suggested that a person with normal weight required a physical condition to qualify as an impairment. The court referred to the ADAAA which instructed courts that they were interpreting the statute too restrictively and expressed its specific intent that determination of disability not demand extensive analysis (122 Stat. at 3553-54).

The DISSENT noted that the definition of a "physical and mental impairment" included "any physiological disorder, or condition" that affects a major system of the human body (29 CFR 1630.2(h)(1)), and argued that the plain meaning required a physiological condition be present before an impairment existed.

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