Saturday, September 24, 2016

THE EEOC GETS A DREAD (LOCKS) RULING


Back in October 2013, The Employee With The Dragon Tattoo told you about how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") had filed suit against Catastrophe Management Solutions Inc. (“CMSI”), an Alabama based insurance claims company.  The lawsuit alleged the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against an African-American job applicant on the basis of race because she wore dreadlocks. The case highlighted the employment issues that can arise over workplace grooming policies, and also sparked sharp criticism against the EEOC’s position from the business community, as well as on the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
 
However, in a recent ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has upheld the employer’s workplace ban on dreadlocks and rejected the EEOC’s hard-edged position that a mutable choice, such as hairstyle, equals an immutable trait such as race.
 
The case began back in 2012.  Chastity Jones was offered a position with CMSI as a customer service representative. At the time of her interview, Jones, who is black, had blond hair that was dreaded in neat curls, or “curllocks.” CMSI’s grooming policy required employees to be “dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines . . . [H]airstyles should reflect a business/professional image.  No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.”  When the manager in charge told Jones that the company did not allow dreadlocks and that she would have to change her hairstyle in order to obtain employment. Jones declined to do so, and the manager immediately rescinded the job offer.
 
In the lawsuit, the EEOC argued that CMSI’s ban on dreadlocks and the imposition of its grooming policy on Jones discriminated against African-Americans based on physical and/or cultural characteristics.  At the time of the filing of the lawsuit, Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the EEOC's Birmingham District Office, stated, “Generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks.” 

The lower federal court later dismissed the lawsuit on the basis that unlike race, “a hairstyle, even one closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.”  The EEOC appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that dreadlocks are a natural outgrowth of the immutable trait of race and that a policy forbidding dreadlocks could be a form of racial stereotyping.
 
In his recent article discussing the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling against the EEOC, my colleague Day Peake, in Phelps Dunbar’s Mobile, Alabama Office, explained the appellate court’s rationale:
 
The Eleventh Circuit held that Title VII’s prohibition on intentional discrimination does not protect hairstyles culturally associated with race. Rather, it prohibits intentional discrimination based on immutable traits such as race, color or national origin. By this rationale, the court explained, discrimination based on black hair texture, such as a natural Afro, would violate Title VII. A prohibition on an all-braided hairstyle, however, addresses a mutable choice and does not implicate Title VII’s proscription of intentional race discrimination.
This decision offers an important exploration of the definition of “race,” which is not defined in Title VII. EEOC relied on its Compliance Manual definition, which provides that “Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against a person because of cultural characteristics often linked to race or ethnicity, such as a person’s name, cultural dress and grooming practices, or accent or manner of speech.” The court chose not to give this guidance much deference or weight in its analysis because the court found the guidance to be contradictory to a position taken by EEOC in an earlier administrative appeal.
The Eleventh Circuit also rejected and criticized the EEOC’s argument on appeal that CMSI’s grooming policy was illegal under a theory of disparate impact, which does not require proof of discriminatory intent, as opposed to disparate treatment, which would constitute intentional discrimination.
In addition to a victory for CMSI, the Eleventh Circuit also vindicated the Wall Street Journal’s assessment of the EEOC’s lawsuit back in 2013:
Apparently Ms. Franklin-Thomas has never seen dreadlocked whites (like the Counting Crow's Adam Duritz) or Latinas (like Shakira). Catastrophe's policy is in fact racially neutral because it enjoins all employees, regardless of race, "to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," including "hairstyle." The company determined that dreadlocks don't meet that standard, as is its right . . . The larger travesty of this case and other misbegotten EEOC crusades of late is that they take time and resources away from individuals with legitimate claims of employment discrimination. Banning dreadlocks doesn't qualify.
Notwithstanding the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, issues of workplace grooming and dress codes are often case and fact specific, and can easily turn into a litigation minefield, particularly over issues of religious accommodation.  This was highlighted recently in the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores (2015). 
Employers should carefully and regularly review such policies, and consult with counsel prior to taking adverse employment actions based on violations of such policies that might implicate a protected class of employees under Title VII.
A MESSAGE TO READERS OF "THE EMPLOYEE WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO"  
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