Essay

Harris v. Hutcheson: Scant Protections Against Weight Discrimination

Only one state in the entire country bans weight discrimination–Michigan.[i] While legal protection and case law remain scant on the subject, research shows time and again the impact of weight discrimination. Studies consistently find that people who are described as overweight or obese are discriminated against at every stage of employment, from hiring, compensation, and promotion to discipline and discharge.[ii] Evidence also continues to mount that diets simply do not work long-term and that weight actually is not a good indicator of health status.[iii] This begs the question–does Michigan’s weight discrimination law provide meaningful protections?

Harris v. Hutcheson[iv] is the most recent case to address Michigan’s weight discrimination law. In Harris, the plaintiff alleged that she was terminated based in part on her weight. Over the course of the plaintiff’s employment, her boss discussed dieting with her, suggested that she get gastric bypass surgery, and told her on her fiftieth birthday that he “‘thought [she’d] never make it.’”[v] The defendant terminated the plaintiff following these comments and the hiring of a new employee with whom the plaintiff had a conflict.[vi] The defendant maintained that her termination was based solely on the plaintiff’s conflict with the new employee. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant. The plaintiff appealed.[vii]

In an unpublished opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision. The court asserted that there was no direct evidence proving that weight discrimination was a motivating factor and found that the termination was based solely on the personnel conflict.[viii] In dismissing the weight discrimination claim, the court quoted approvingly from a previous decision which stated:

Weight is an aspect of oneself that is subject to some control by one’s conduct. It is common knowledge that many health professionals advise against being ‘overweight.’ Accordingly, comments that could be reasonably taken as mere advice . . . do not amount to . . . illegal weight discrimination.[ix]

The court went on to assert that the defendant’s comments were not directly about the plaintiff’s weight and stated that her subjective interpretation of the comments did not prove discriminatory animus.[x]

The Michigan Court of Appeals may have correctly held that, in this particular case, the plaintiff did not prove that weight was a motivating factor. However, the willingness of the court to rely on outdated and medically questionable conclusions about weight are a concerning clue as to how future cases may be decided. Recent research simply does not support the court’s conclusion that people have a great deal of control over their weight. Further, the effects of attempted weight loss through dieting may be more harmful than maintaining a consistent weight.[xi]

Employers should not be allowed to make hurtful and stereotype-based comments to a person due to their weight. Employers are already barred from making comments so directly tied to sex stereotypes. When a state chooses to make weight a similarly protected class, like Michigan has, courts should hold those protected classes to equally stringent standards.

[i] Rebecca M. Puhl et al., Potential Policies and Laws to Prohibit Weight Discrimination: Public Views from Four Countries, 93 The Milbank Quarterly 691, 693 (2015).

[ii] Mark v. Roehling, Weight-Based Discrimination in Employment: Psychological and Legal Aspects, 52 Pers. Psychology 969, 682-83 (1999).

[iii] See, e.g., Sandra Aamodt, Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet, N.Y. Times (May 6, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/why-you-cant-lose-weight-on-a-diet.html; Harriet Brown, The Weight of the Evidence, Slate (March 24, 2015, 3:00 AM), http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2015/03/diets_do_not_work_the_thin_evidence_that_losing_weight_makes_you_healthier.html.

[iv] Harris v. Hutcheson, No. 335304, 2018 WL 472217, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. January 18, 2018).

[v] Id.

[vi] Id. at 1-2.

[vii] Id. at 2.

[viii] Id. at 3.

[ix] Lamoria v. Health Care & Ret. Corp., 230 Mich. App. 801, 810 n. 8 (1998).

[x] Harris v. Hutcheson, No. 335304, 2018 WL 472217, at *1, *3 (Mich. Ct. App. January 18, 2018).

[xi] See, e.g., A. Janet Tomiyama et al., Long-term Effects of Dieting: Is Weight Loss Related to Health?, 7 Soc. & Personality Psychology Compass 861 (2013); Manfred J. Müller et al., Is There Evidence for a Set Point that Regulates Human Body Weight?, 2 F1000 Med. Reports 1 (2010).