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Montana Supreme Court Says Obesity Is a Protected DisabilityFour Montana Supreme Court Justices decided on Friday that obesity is considered a disability under the Montana Human Rights Act and could potentially be protected under other disability rights laws.
The Courts clarification was requested by US District Judge Donald Malloy concerning a case involving Eric Feit. Feit was given a conditional offer to hire by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) to work as a conductor trainee. They withdrew the offer citing "significant health and safety risks associated with extreme obesity," according to a report by the Helena Independent Record.
Feit filed suit with the Montana Department of Labor (DOL) against BNSF in February of 2009. According to court documents BNSF told Feit he would only be considered, though they still would offer no guarantee of employment, if he lost 10 percent of his body weight or if he completed an array of physical examinations at his own expense. Feit completed all of the physical test but one, which cost $1800, and claims he lost the weight.
In 2010, a DOL hearing officer agreed with Feit, saying that BNSF refused to hire him due to his "disability," and awarded him damages. The BNSF appeal submitted to the Montana Human Rights Commission was denied. The company then took the matter to Federal court.
In a 4-3 decision the Montana Supreme Court ruled that if a person is obese, even if it is not caused by another condition, and it affects the function of one or more of their body systems, it may constitute an impairment or disability. Justices Mike Wheat, James Nelson, Beth Baker and Patricia O'Brien were responsible for the majority decision.
The three Justices who dissented, Justices Brian Morris, James Rice and Mike McGrath, said the interpretive guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that the obesity must be caused by a disability. They also said that though newer versions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) consider obesity to be a disability, it should not be considered since it was not in place at the time of the original filing of the suit.
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