Court finds sex stereotyping for hotel worker with "tomboyish" look.

April 4, 2012

In Brenna Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, a front desk hotel clerk was allegedly fired because of her "tomboyish" appearance. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that she can pursue employment discrimination and retaliation claims against her former employer.

The employee, Lewis, was promoted from nights to days at a hotel operated by Waterloo, Iowa-based Heartland Inns in December 2006. "Lewis prefers to wear loose-fitting clothing, including men's button-down shirts and slacks," the appeals court said in its ruling. "She avoids makeup and wore her hair short at the time. Lewis has been mistaken for a male and referred to as 'tomboyish.' "

The hotel's director of operations, Barbara Cullinan, first noticed Lewis, after her promotion to the day shift, and said Lewis lacked the "Midwestern girl look." At a meeting, Cullinan told Lewis she would need a second interview to confirm her new post, after which Lewis protested that other staff members were not required to have a second interview. Lewis was thereafter fired three days later.

Lewis filed suit, alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. A district court granted summary judgment in Heartland Inn's favor, but a panel of the appeals court overturned the lower court in a 2-1 ruling. The appeals court cited the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Price Waterhouse v. Ann Hopkins, in which it ruled a gender stereotyping claim could be filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the woman allegedly denied a partnership because she did not act feminine.

Subsequently, other federal appeals courts have upheld Title VII claims based on sex stereotyping, according to the 8th Circuit ruling. The Court stated "Cullinan's criticism of Lewis for lack of 'prettiness' and the 'Midwestern girl look' before terminating her may also be found by a reasonable fact finder to be evidence of wrongful sex stereotyping."