Obesity—Protected as personal appearance under DC law

The story is all too familiar; the names may change, but the story lines are pretty much the same. As reported by NBCNews.com, her name was Annette and she would be what most would consider fat-300 pounds to be exact. She worked in sales, felt she was good at her job-in fact had won awards. Even so, she never felt comfortable around the regional manager. Then came the comment that she might try skipping eating dinner and take to just reading a good book in the evenings. She began to suspect that something was afoot, and then her fear was realized when she was laid off-being told to her face that "people don't like buying from fat people."

The workplace can be a harsh environment for people who are overweight. Truth be told, Americans don't much like fat people. When we come across an obese person in the shopping mall, we often have an instinctive negative impulse-what is wrong; where is the self-control? Rarely do we think that there might be a medical issue that predisposes the person to carry that extra weight, regardless of diet or exercise. In the vast majority of the United States, if an obese person encounters discrimination in the workplace and asks an attorney for advice, the answer would likely be that there is nothing legally wrong with being discriminated against because of your weight. The District of Columbia, however, is one of the few jurisdictions that are the exception-the only others being the State of Michigan, the cities of San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California.

The law in the District of Columbia

The District of Columbia Human Rights Law bans any employment discrimination by reason of personal appearance. It is clear that by banning discrimination based upon a person's "personal appearance" that a person's weight or height, which can be quantitatively measured, cannot be used as a hiring criteria, a factor in promotions, or other employment action. But the prohibition is broader than just height and weight. The law defines "personal appearance" to include the outward appearance of the person, regardless of sex, including body condition and characteristics and personal grooming. While there are no reported cases, the question remains open on whether the law protects someone who is simply less attractive. Donald Trump once remarked that he would look into Rosie O'Donnell's "fat ugly face and fire her." Well, maybe not in the District of Columbia.

Seeking experienced legal counsel

There are exceptions to the law for business necessities and religious groups, as well other circumstances. If you feel that you have suffered an adverse employment action in the District of Columbia because of your personal appearance, you should seek the advice of an experienced employment law attorney to understand your rights.