EEOC’s Stance on Dreadlocks Rejected

By Scott M. Wich Oct 26, 2016
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An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit brought on behalf of an individual whose job offer was revoked because her hair was in dreadlocks was dismissed.

From its inception, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has prohibited discrimination on the basis of race. The recent 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision shows that the definition of race is not subject to clear delineation. However, the court concluded, Title VII's prohibition against race discrimination does not extend beyond the immutable characteristics of race, however defined.

Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) is an insurance claims processing company in Mobile, Ala. In 2010, it conducted interviews for the position of customer service representative. The job involved handling phone calls and required no contact with the public. Chastity Jones, who is black, applied for and was offered a job as one of the customer service representatives.

Thereafter, a CMS human resources manager asked Jones whether she had her hair in dreadlocks. Acknowledging her hair style, Jones was then advised that CMS could not hire her unless she cut her hair. Faced with Jones' response that she would not cut her hair, the CMS HR manager revoked the employment offer, relying on the following company policy: "All personnel are expected 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]airstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable."

The EEOC filed a complaint of unlawful race discrimination on Jones' behalf, alleging disparate treatment by CMS. The trial court dismissed the complaint, finding that the EEOC could not state a cause of action. On appeal, the higher court affirmed the dismissal.

The appeals court undertook a detailed analysis of Title VII's prohibition against race discrimination. It noted that Title VII "prohibits discrimination based on immutable characteristics." The court noted, by way of comparison, the fact that Title VII was amended in 1972 to protect not just religion but "religious observance and practice." In contrast, Title VII has never been amended to make a similar expansion to the protection of race.

The EEOC did not allege that dreadlocks were an immutable characteristic of being black. Rather, the agency argued that the hairstyle is a racial characteristic and, therefore, should be protected under the law. It asserted that race is a "social construct" and that "the concept of race encompasses cultural characteristics related to race or ethnicity."

The appeals court rejected these arguments, relying in part on an EEOC decision in 2008 that held that grooming policies that prohibit dreadlocks and similar hairstyles lie "outside the scope of federal employment discrimination statutes." In dismissing more recent guidance found in the current EEOC Compliance Manual, which extends Title VII protections to cultural characteristics (including name, manner of dress and grooming practices), the appeals court ruled that the EEOC's newer guidance was unpersuasive. The court concluded, "As far as we can tell, every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race."

EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, 11th Cir., No. 14-13482 (Sept. 15, 2016).

Professional Pointer: Federal government agencies, including the EEOC and the National Labor Relations Board, continue efforts to expand the scope of employee protections. The efforts have been met with some resistance in the courts. Employers are well-advised to be alert to not only what the law says now, but where it might be going, when making workplace decisions.

Scott M. Wich is an attorney with the law firm of Clifton Budd & DeMaria LLP in New York City. 

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