Eleventh Circuit Finds That Employer’s Dreadlocks Ban Does Not Constitute Race Discrimination

Lev Craig

On September 21, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Southern District of Alabama’s decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, in which the district court held that an employer’s policy prohibiting employees from having dreadlocks did not constitute race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

In May 2010, Chastity Jones, who is Black and wears her hair in dreadlocks, completed an online employment application for a customer service representative position at Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), an insurance claims processing company based in Mobile, Alabama, and was selected for an in-person interview. Ms. Jones performed well in her interview, and CMS hired her for the customer service representative position on the spot.

However, as Ms. Jones was leaving, Jeannie Wilson, a Human Resources Manager at CMS with whom Ms. Jones had met to discuss the terms of her employment, asked her if she was wearing her hair in dreadlocks. When Ms. Jones responded that she was, Ms. Wilson told her that CMS could not hire her if she continued to wear her hair in dreadlocks on the grounds that dreadlocks violated CMS’s grooming policy, which required employees to be “dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image,” including hairstyle. Ms. Wilson allegedly told Ms. Jones that “[dreadlocks] tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” When Ms. Jones replied that she would not cut her hair, Ms. Wilson immediately rescinded CMS’s offer of employment.

Ms. Jones filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that CMS’s refusal to hire her because of her dreadlocks constituted race discrimination in violation of Title VII. The EEOC filed suit on Ms. Jones’s behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. CMS successfully moved to dismiss the complaint, and the EEOC appealed the district court’s decision to the Eleventh Circuit.

The EEOC argued that banning dreadlocks in the workplace “constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” As such, basing employment decisions on an individual’s choice to wear dreadlocks constituted racial stereotyping, and CMS’s interpretation of its facially race-neutral grooming policy to prohibit dreadlocks was discriminatory towards Black employees and job applicants.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s arguments and affirmed the district court’s dismissal. First, the Eleventh Circuit found that—although the EEOC had asserted only a disparate treatment Title VII claim—the EEOC’s arguments conflated the disparate treatment and disparate impact theories of liability. While a disparate treatment claim requires a plaintiff to prove that the employer intentionally discriminated against them on the basis of a protected characteristic, a disparate impact claim does not: a plaintiff alleging a disparate impact claim must only show that an employment practice has a disproportionate adverse impact on a protected class, not that the discrimination was intentional. Here, the EEOC had brought only a disparate treatment claim, yet, the Court found, the EEOC did not successfully allege any race discrimination on CMS’s part had been intentional.

Second, the court found that, according to the relevant case law, “Title VII protects persons in covered categories with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices”—more specifically, “discrimination on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.” Even though dreadlocks are a natural outgrowth of black hair texture and are “historically, physiologically, and culturally associated” with black individuals, the court found that these factors were not enough to sustain a claim that CMS had used its grooming policy as a “proxy for intentional racial discrimination,” because dreadlocks are not an immutable racial characteristic. As the EEOC had not alleged that dreadlocks are an immutable characteristic of black people, the court found that the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim of race discrimination under Title VII.

Next week, we’ll explore the theory underlying the court’s decision in this case, as well as the decision’s implications, in greater detail. If your employer has discriminated against you because of your race, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.