Eleventh Circuit: Race-Neutral Grooming Policy that Rejected Dreadlocks Was Not Disparate Treatment Discrimination

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September 15, 2016

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sued an employer on behalf of a black applicant whose job offer was rescinded when she refused to change her dreadlock hairstyle.  On September 15, 2016, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed with a district court’s dismissal of the alleged discrimination complaint.  The Court reasoned that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits adverse actions on the basis of immutable characteristics of race, whereas the dreadlocks hairstyle was a mutable choice.  This decision follows other courts in similarly rejecting the argument that hairstyles can be a “determinant of racial identity.”

The employer, Catastrophe Management Solutions (“CMS”), had a race-neutral grooming policy that specified “No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable[.]”  The EEOC claimed that CMS’s conduct was discriminatory, alleging that dreadlocks are a natural outgrowth and directly associated with the immutable trait of black hair texture and race, and that targeting dreadlocks could be a form of racial stereotyping.

The Court noted the distinction between immutable characteristics of a protected category as opposed to cultural practices, stating that Title VII covers the former, not the latter. The EEOC’s complaint did not claim that the dreadlocks themselves were an immutable characteristic, but rather historically, physiologically and culturally associated with a black individual’s race. The Court determined that while black hair texture is an immutable characteristic, the hairstyle itself was a mutable, cultural choice.  The Court followed the Fifth Circuit’s previous finding that there was no disparate impact in cases where the rule in question (here, CMS’s grooming policy) could be readily observed, and an individual’s nonobservance is simply a matter of individual preference.

Action Items

  1. Take care when implementing facially neutral employment policies, and consider consulting legal counsel before taking adverse actions in situations where the action could be interpreted as discriminatory.

Disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance concerning employment-related issues. It is presented with the understanding that ManagEase is not engaged in rendering any legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please contact the services of your own legal adviser.

© 2016 ManagEase, Incorporated.

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