HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

Montana on Obesity: No Underlying Condition Necessary to Prove a Disability

With Daniel Cafaro

Montana has joined the obesity debate, determining in a recent case that being severely overweight, even with no underlying medical condition, can be a disability protected by state law.

In BNSF Railway Co. v. Feit (No. OP 11-0463, 2012 MT 147 (Mont. July 6, 2012)), the state’s supreme court decided that obesity can be a qualifying disability, even without an underlying physiological cause — a departure from most federal appellate courts’ interpretations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The suit was filed under the Montana Human Rights Act, but the court turned to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s ADA compliance manual for guidance. While the commission notes that being overweight, in and of itself, is generally not an impairment, “severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100 percent over the norm . . . is clearly an impairment.” If an individual’s weight meets that threshold, “there is no explicit requirement that the obesity be based on a physiological impairment,” the court explained.

BNSF pointed out that most federal courts of appeals to consider the issue have held that an individual’s obesity must have an underlying physiological cause to amount to a disability but the court decided that post-Amendments decisions out of lower, federal courts were more relevant and based its decision, in part, on one such Louisiana case. In EEOC v. Resources for Human Dev., Inc., 827 F.Supp.2d 688, 694 (E.D. La. 2011), the court determined that if an individual’s weight is outside the normal range there is no explicit requirement that obesity be based on a physiological impairment. The individual must only show that his or her obesity substantially limits a major life activity to prove a disability.

For more information, see Court Ruling Highlights Effect of Obesity on Employers.