Damages awarded for MTA rejection

February 28, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Jacqueline Wilson was a single mother living on welfare with a 4-year-old daughter in East Baltimore when opportunity arrived, and then left her behind in a cloud of diesel fumes.

The 22-year-old was turned down for a job as a bus driver with the Mass Transit Administration solely because, at 5 feet 5 1/2 inches tall and 186 pounds, she was judged 40 pounds overweight.

That was 1979. Fifteen years later, the state is on the verge of making amends. She and two other women are about to receive more than $36,000 in damages for being refused jobs driving buses for the MTA on the basis of obesity.

"I begged and pleaded with them to get a chance to lose the weight and come back. They just said 'No,' " said Ms. Wilson, who has worked as a clerk for the Motor Vehicle Administration in Glen Burnie for the past six years.

The state's second highest court ruled Feb. 1 that Ms. Wilson and fellow job applicants Dorothea Goodman and Betty Wright are eligible to receive the award under a state law that penalizes employers up to 24 months back pay for discriminatory hiring practices.

The amount of the award was determined by totaling the first two years of lost wages at the MTA minus any income the plaintiffs actually earned during that period. The law has since been amended to grant up to three years in pay, but the plaintiffs were judged ineligible for that benefit.

Ms. Wilson will receive $14,196.94, Mrs. Goodman $10,688.98 and Ms. Wright $11,253.40 under the court-approved formula.

MTA officials announced Thursday they will not appeal the verdict to the Maryland Court of Appeals. The issues at stake were considered minor, and the cost of continued litigation rivaled the amount of back pay, said Irwin Brown, the MTA's chief counsel.

The court's ruling turned on the narrowest of legal issues. When the women applied to work at the MTA between 1978 and 1979, state agencies were exempt from back-pay awards in job-discrimination cases. The law was amended by the General Assembly in 1980, and that exemption was removed. But the MTA and the Maryland Commission on Human Relations disagreed over whether the benefit would apply retroactively.

Of potentially greater impact are the implications the case has for a controversial area of the law: whether protections that have helped blacks, women and the disabled also guard against discrimination on the basis of a perceived disability, obesity.

The plaintiffs said they hope the financial award will make employers less likely to spurn job applicants because they are fat.

"The message is 'Don't take no for an answer, not when it comes to height and weight,' " said Mrs. Goodman, who carried 205 pounds on her 5-foot-2-inch frame when she was rejected by the MTA in 1978. "Weight doesn't have anything to do with your ability to do the job."

Sally L. Swann, assistant general counsel for the state human relations commission, said the case is the first of its kind in Maryland and could have far-reaching effects. Employers, she said, do not have the right to categorically reject applicants in the belief that their weight affects their ability to perform a job.

"Job applicants must be treated fairly and have their job abilities assessed," Ms. Swann said. "You can't make an assumption that if someone is overweight, he can't do a job. If you assume they can't reach up, or bend or turn, that's not enough."

Ms. Swann noted that the concept was upheld last November by a federal appeals court ruling that the Rhode Island mental health department couldn't refuse to hire an attendant based on an observation that she was "morbidly obese."

The MTA no longer maintains a standard for weight as it did when the women applied to be bus drivers, officials said. In 1991 and 1992, all three were offered jobs as drivers to comply with an earlier ruling by a state administrative law judge, but only Mrs. Goodman went to work for the MTA as a bus operator.

Ms. Wilson said she may yet choose to work for the MTA. She initially was worried she would have the job status of a first-year employee.

But the judge's ruling guarantees she would be given the seniority of someone who has held an MTA job since 1979, a fact she was apprised of just this week. That makes the offer considerably more attractive: MTA bus drivers earn an average of $37,000 annually, compared with her annual income of less than $21,000 at the MVA.

"I think people are discriminated against because of their weight all the time, but they don't come forward," Ms. Wilson said. "The MTA was a big, powerful establishment, and there was me. [But] I knew what they did was unfair. I could feel it in my heart."

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