BALTIMORE, AUG. 3 -- An administrative law judge has ruled that four admittedly overweight women suffered unfair discrimination because of a "perceived handicap" -- obesity -- and can reapply for jobs denied them for 11 years by the state Mass Transit Administration.
Law Judge Merry C. Hudson ruled that the "perceived handicap of obesity" is protected from job discrimination under Maryland law like other physical handicaps and thus cannot be the basis for automatic or blanket denial of a job.
Further, she said, the transit administration failed to show that the women could not do the jobs they sought -- driving and cleaning buses -- but simply "perceived" them as incapable because of their weight.
She ordered transit officials to give the women new physical examinations and, if they pass, let them have the first available jobs they want.
"It feels good . . . . Our weight didn't have anything to do with it," said Dorothea Goodman, 39, of Baltimore, one of the four women.
Now working as a barmaid, she said it was worth waiting through 11 years of hearings, appeals and legal wrangling between the transit administration and the Maryland Human Relations Commission, which represented her and the other three women. "I'm just glad we went on and pursued it," she said. "I hope it will open doors for other people."
Asked if she will seek the bus-driving job she originally applied for in 1979, she said, "I'll take it." Goodman would not say how much she weighs now, but said, "I've lost some" in the last few years. She weighed 205 pounds and was 5 feet 2 inches tall when she applied for the job and rose to 230 pounds in 1984, according to papers in the case.
A transit administration spokeswoman said the agency still is studying Hudson's 43-page ruling and has not decided whether to appeal the issue further.
In addition to Goodman, the women in the case are Jacqueline Wilson, Betty Wright and Carlisa V. Hawkins, all of Baltimore. According to case papers, Wilson weighed 186 pounds when she applied for work; Wright, 187 pounds; and Hawkins, 195 pounds. They all exceeded limits on a transit administration chart for allowable heights and weights and were automatically rejected.
The case involved complex nuances of the law with both the women and the transit administration contending, for different reasons, that the women were not handicapped. There were also legal wrangles over whether obesity is an inborn or culturally acquired trait.
The women said they were perfectly fit to work. The transit administration said they were not fit, but in a strategem to get the case dismissed from the Human Relations Commission, contended that obesity did not meet the definition of "handicap" under state law.
Hudson, however, ruled that obesity, which often causes greater risks of heart attack and other serious illnesses, can be considered a handicap under state law. The law defines a handicap as "any physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement, which is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness."
The Human Relations Commission argued that the women suffered from none of these conditions but that the transit administration "perceived" them as being handicapped.
Hudson agreed, ruling that the commission did not have to prove the women's condition constituted actual handicaps. "It need only show that the perceived condition in and of itself is such that falls within" the state definition.