EEOC loses its hairstyle discrimination case

September 15, 2016 | By JOSHUA THOMPSON

Earlier today, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s lawsuit against Catastrophe Management Solutions. This an important decision concerning the proper scope of Title VII. At issue was whether a business’s policy requiring professional-looking haircuts — and interpreted to prohibit dreadlocks —  facially violates Title VII’s prohibition on intentional racial discrimination in employment. Because the Court found that Title VII only prohibits discrimination based on immutable characteristics, it affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit.

A year ago, when PLF filed its amicus brief in the case, I explained the facts of the case:

Think about the following scenario.  A job seeker sees an ad for a sales job. She has all the correct qualifications.  Her interview goes great.  The business says they want to hire her, but because she will be selling the business to the public, she must get a professional-looking haircut.  The job seeker refuses. Instead, she contacts the EEOC and says that the business is discriminating against her on the basis of race. The EEOC agrees, and sues the company for intentional racial discrimination.That’s exactly what happened in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions.

Of course, there are scenarios where a business’s haircut policy could violate Title VII. For example, if the business only fired black employees that wore dreadlocks, the EEOC could prove the policy was just a proxy to engage in intentional racial discrimination.  Or, the EEOC could claim that the policy disproportionately affects black employees, in violation of Title VII’s disparate impact provisions. Either argument could have resulted in a lengthy, fact-intensive case that the business would have to defend in court.

However, because the EEOC sought to create a new, expansive doctrine under Title VII, it did not rely on either framework. Instead, the EEOC argued that dreadlocks are synonymous with race, and therefore, a ban on dreadlocks in the workplace is indistinguishable from a ban on African-Americans in the workplace. It argued that Catastrophe’s haircut policy was facially and intentionally discriminating against African-Americans on the basis of race.

In a very thorough opinion, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s attempt to rewrite Title VII. The court explained that EEOC conceded that hairstyle — including dreadlocks — was mutable. Nevertheless, EEOC argued that a mutable characteristic could form the basis of an intentional discrimination claim, because “dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.”

Therefore, the court was tasked with determining whether a “cultural association” with a particular race suffices to state a claim under Title VII. It held that it does not. The court undertook a thorough examination of the definition of “race,” and ultimately concluded that when Title VII was enacted race “as a matter of language and usage, referred to common physical characteristics shared by a group of people and transmitted by their ancestors over time.”

The court explained that even if the definition of race were ambiguous, forty years of clear unequivocal precedent — many cited by PLF in its amicus brief — demonstrate that Title VII only protects discrimination based on immutable characteristics. And while the precise definition of race may be difficult, the idea that hairstyle is synonymous with race has been universally rejected.

Lastly, the Court noted the inherent problem with EEOC’s position: cultural traits are ever-changing. Culture is dynamic. Traits that are presently associated with certain cultures may not be 10, 20, or 50 years from now. Title VII prohibits discrimination based on certain immutable traits, because the individual has no ability to change them and because those traits have been used historically as a basis for discrimination.

If discrimination based on hairstyle is just a proxy to discriminate based on race or disproportionately affects members of a certain race, Title VII has a framework for addressing those employment decisions. Instead of following that well-trodden path, the EEOC sought to dramatically rewrite Title VII by equating a mutable hairstyle choice with immutable skin color. The Eleventh Circuit correctly rejected the EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII as a matter of law.

[Cross posted at Fed Soc Blog.]