Eleventh Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Dreadlock Discrimination Argument in Title VII Case

A would-be call center employee lost an offer of employment because she refused to do away with her hairstyle of wearing dreadlocks. The employer, who rescinded the offer of employment based upon its policy against certain hairstyles, was not forced to face trial for this decision. Even if a particular hairstyle is closely associated with people of a particular race and tied to the unique texture of their hair, a hairstyle cannot constitute an “immutable characteristic” as required under Title VII law, and that, according to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, doomed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s case against this employer.

In this situation, the relationship between job applicant Chastity Jones and employer Catastrophe Management Solutions apparently started out on a positive note. In 2010, Catastrophe sought applicants to fill customer service representative positions in its call center in Mobile, Alabama. Jones applied. Catastrophe brought her in for an interview and extended an offer of employment to the woman. However, with the offer came a catch. Jones had to get rid of her dreadlock hairstyle. Jones refused to cut off her dreadlocks, and Catastrophe rescinded the offer of employment.

The EEOC sued Catastrophe on behalf of Jones, an African-American, alleging race discrimination in violation of Title VII. Although Catastrophe had a race-neutral company policy banning employees from wearing hairstyles that were not “business/professional” or were “excessive,” Jones argued that, since dreadlocks were common among African-Americans and were “suitable for black hair texture,” a ban on dreadlocks necessarily amounted to illegal discrimination against African-Americans.

The trial court dismissed the EEOC’s complaint. Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination only extends to immutable characteristics. No matter how closely a particular hairstyle might be associated with a particular race or ethnic group, hairstyles are fundamentally mutable (or changeable) characteristics. An African-American cannot choose to change races. However, a wearer of dreadlocks, no matter how strongly that wearer might associate her hairstyle with her racial pride or identity, can choose to change her hairdo. Since hairstyles cannot be considered immutable or unchangeable characteristics, the trial court concluded that the EEOC’s dreadlock discrimination case did not state a valid Title VII violation.

The 11th Circuit upheld that dismissal on appeal. Part of the reason the ruling in favor of the employer survived related back to the legal theory the EEOC used to try to advance the case. Under Title VII’s protection against discrimination, a victim may pursue her case in one of two ways. She may argue that, even though the employer’s policies were race-neutral, they harmed a protected group (such as African-Americans) disproportionately. This is called the “disparate impact” theory of discrimination. Alternately, a victim may try to establish what’s called “disparate treatment.” This involves proving that the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee, based upon some protected characteristic, such as race.

In this case, the EEOC argued that Catastrophe had engaged in disparate treatment discrimination, rather than disparate impact discrimination. This meant that, to go forward with the case, it needed proof that Catastrophe intentionally discriminated against Jones because of her race. The appeals court rejected the EEOC’s argument that Title VII’s prohibition against racial and ethnic discrimination was meant to extend to individual expressions commonly tied to a particular race. Looking at past cases, the court concluded that “as a general matter, Title VII protects persons in covered categories with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.” The fact that “dreadlocks are a ‘natural outgrowth’ of the texture of black hair does not make them an immutable characteristic of race.”

Georgia employers should proceed with care when dealing with these types of issues in the creation of their set of mandatory rules that employees must follow. The employer was victorious in this case, but the EEOC didn’t argue that Catastrophe’s grooming rules had a disparate impact on African-American employees. It is not clear whether or not this case’s outcome would have been the same if the employer had faced a disparate impact, as opposed to disparate treatment, claim. Employers will have to weigh carefully their choices in deciding whether their preference for banning certain hairstyles is worth the litigation these policies may trigger.

For advice and counsel about workplace rules and Title VII’s impact on them, whether you’re an employer or an employee, contact the knowledgeable Georgia race discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have many years of experience helping both employers and employees understand and assess their rights and obligations under the law.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Woman Wins Workplace Discrimination Action in US Supreme Court After Her Muslim Attire Clashed With Company Dress Code, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, July 22, 2015

Whose Business is it? Some Workplace Boundaries, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 12, 2014

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