Under federal law and many state laws (including in Minnesota), it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based on certain “protected categories,” including age, color, creed, disability, gender, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation. Just as an employer cannot refuse to hire an employee solely because that employee is known to be affiliated with a certain religion, an employer cannot fire an employee simply because they are elderly. The purpose of these laws is to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and that employees do not face the consequences of the explicit or implicit biases of employers. Employees (and prospective employees) should be evaluated on their qualifications, work ethic, and capabilities, not on their often immutable characteristics.
The Limits of the Law
But what about an employee’s weight? Or their spouse? In many ways, these are also fundamental characteristics of an employee’s identity, and it seems unfair that an employer could discriminate against employees solely because they are overweight or are married to the wrong person.
First, the bad news. There are no federal protections on account of an employee’s weight or marital status. For whatever reason, there is no political will in Congress to pass laws that would protect employees based on these characteristics.
However, with respect to workplace discrimination based on weight, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may afford some protections from discrimination based on obesity. The ADA generally provides protections for individuals with disabilities. In one federal appeals case, a court rejected the idea that obesity itself is a disability, but it held that if the employee is able to show that their obesity is caused by an underlying “physiological disorder or condition,” it can be considered a physical impairment—and therefore a disability. Even if the obesity is not caused by such a “physiological disorder or condition,” if the employer regards or considers the employee to be disabled, the employer would then be entitled to the ADA’s protections. Many state laws protecting individuals with disabilities afford similar protections, but only one state (Michigan) explicitly prohibits discrimination based on weight (and also height).
As for marital discrimination, there is similarly no federal protection. But many states, including Minnesota in particular, provide broad protections based on marital status. At the most basic level, a company could not refuse to hire an applicant on the basis that they were married. But beyond this, a company couldn’t terminate a spouse based on the conduct of their spouse. For example, if two spouses worked for the same company and Spouse 1 engaged in illegal behavior (without the Spouse 2’s knowledge or participation), the company couldn’t terminate Spouse 2 solely based on his or her marriage to Spouse 1.
At Schaefer Halleen, our experienced Minnesota employment law attorneys represent employees across the country in discrimination cases. If you feel you have been treated unfairly for reasons unrelated to your work performance, do not hesitate to contact us for a free consultation.