As of July 2019, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that obesity is considered a disability protected under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”). The landmark ruling makes it illegal for employers in Washington to refuse to hire qualified potential employees because the employer perceives them to be obese.

The matter concerned a plaintiff who sued his prospective employer after the company made a conditional offer of employment contingent on a physical exam and medical history questionnaire. After it was determined that the plaintiff’s BMI was over 40 (considered “extremely” or “severely” obese according to the Center for Disease Control), the plaintiff was asked to complete expansive medical testing at his own expense before the company would decide if they would hire him.

In its analysis, the Court noted that the WLAD is generally broader than its federal counterpart, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court held that obesity is always an impairment under the WLAD and should be protected and accommodated even if it does not result from a separate disorder. Moreover, would-be plaintiffs do not need to show they actually are obese in order to make a claim under the WLAD; the showing that their actual or potential employers perceived them to be obese is enough to state a claim.

The case was before the Washington Supreme Court on a certified question from the Ninth Circuit. It will now go back to the Ninth Circuit for resolution. In the meantime, Washington employers must be aware of the new ruling and tread cautiously with their prospective and current employees. For jobs that require a certain degree of physical fitness, employers should be careful to approach the job requirements in a way that focuses on the essential job functions in technical and medical terms. Employers, particularly employers who use medical testing or require a physical exam before hiring a candidate, should reevaluate their practices to ensure compliance with the new ruling.

Employers who have any questions or concerns about Washington’s anti-discrimination laws or the new ruling on obesity should consult with a lawyer to address their concerns. Troutman Sanders has Washington-licensed attorneys available to provide guidance on the new ruling.[1]

[1] The case can be found at Taylor v. Burlington Northern Railroad Holdings, Inc., No. 96335-5 (Wash., July 11, 2019).