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OFF BEAT: Obesity could be an impairment in Montana


Obesity may be an impairment, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled in the case of a railroad job applicant who was told he didn’t qualify for a “safety-sensitive” job.

The ruling addressed a 2009 Montana Department of Labor and Industry complaint alleging that Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. illegally discriminated because of a perceived disability—obesity.

Eric Feit claimed BNSF withdrew a conditional offer to hire him as a conductor trainee because of “significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity.”

A hearing officer concluded that BNSF engaged in hiring discrimination because it regarded Mr. Feit as “disabled.” The officer awarded damages for lost wages and benefits, prejudgment interest and emotional distress.

On appeal, the Montana Human Rights Commission upheld the hearing officer’s determination, so BNSF asked a federal judge to determine whether the employer violated the Montana Human Rights Act by refusing to hire Mr. Feit because of his obesity.

But the judge asked Montana’s Supreme Court to first clarify whether obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological condition amounts to a physical or mental impairment under Montana law.

A court majority answered with a qualified yes. They ruled that obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological condition may constitute a physical or mental impairment if an individual’s weight is outside a “normal range” and affects “one or more body systems.”

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