The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., (LDF) is asking the Supreme Court to take up review of an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision finding an employer that rescinded a job offer to a qualified Black woman solely because she wore her hair in dreadlocks did not violate Title VII. The case below was brought by the EEOC; the LDF is seeking to intervene in the Supreme Court on behalf of the complainant.
Immutable characteristic? Below, in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), the Eleventh Circuit on December 13, 2016 (in a revised opinion) affirmed the district court, finding that in its proposed amended complaint and in its briefs, the EEOC had conflated the distinct Title VII theories of disparate treatment—the sole theory on which it was proceeding—and disparate impact, a theory it had expressly disclaimed. Moreover Eleventh Circuit precedent holds that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on immutable traits, and the proposed amended complaint did not assert that dreadlocks, although culturally associated with race, are an immutable characteristic of Black persons.
The appeals court also was unpersuaded by EEOC guidance in its Compliance Manual because it conflicts with the position the federal agency took in an earlier administrative appeal, and the EEOC did not persuasively explain why it had changed course. Finally, the Eleventh Circuit said that “no court has accepted the EEOC’s view of Title VII in a scenario like this one.” The Eleventh Circuit thus concluded that the proposed amended complaint failed to set out a plausible claim that CMS intentionally discriminated against the applicant on the basis of her race.
The post-offer interview. The petition for certiorari is filed on behalf of an African-American woman who was offered a job in 2010 as a customer service representative with CMS at its Mobile, Alabama, call center. In her job interview, the applicant wore a blue business suit with dark pumps and had her hair in short, well-maintained dreadlocks, a Black person’s natural hairstyle. She alleges that in a private meeting after she was offered the job, the HR manager asked if her hair was in dreadlocks. When she responded that it was, the HR manager informed her that the company could not hire her because of her hair and revoked her job offer, relying on the racial stereotype that dreadlocks “tend to get messy,” while also acknowledging that the employee’s own hair was not messy.
Did the appeals court get it wrong? According to the petition, the Eleventh Circuit incorrectly upheld the erroneous lower court decision, dismissing the lawsuit and ruling that disparate treatment claims under Title VII are limited to discrimination based on “immutable” physical characteristics. If allowed to stand, the Court of Appeals’ ruling means that Title VII is powerless to counter employment discrimination based on many racial stereotypes and effectively permits employers to ban natural Black hairstyles in the workplace, according to the LDF.
Moreover, the appeals court’s ruling contradicts Supreme Court precedent established in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), which ruled that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on stereotypes, regardless of whether the stereotype focuses on mutable or immutable traits. Every appellate court that has considered a similar legal question has consistently followed Price Waterhouse, the petition asserts. For example, the Seventh Circuit has held that Title VII bars an employer from taking a negative employment action against a Black employee because she wore her hair in an “afro.”
Persistent stereotype. Many African Americans have faced barriers or judgments in the workplace when they display their natural hair. Dreadlocks in particular have long been the target of deep-seated negative stereotypes about Black people and their hair, primarily that it is dirty, unprofessional, or unkempt, the LDF observed. The term “dreadlocks” originated from slave traders who described Africans’ hair that had naturally formed into dreadlocks as “dreadful.”
Black women who wish to succeed in the workplace have often been compelled by these stereotypes to undertake costly, time-consuming and harsh measures to straighten their hair in order to conform to the predominant White culture. The idea that dreadlocks will inevitably become messy, and are therefore unprofessional, is a false racial stereotype that eliminated an employment opportunity for the applicant in this case. Such discriminatory employment practices are what federal civil rights laws were enacted to prevent, according to the LDF.
“This case gets at the heart of a Black person’s ability to compete in the workplace without yielding to the false idea that their hair is inherently unprofessional,” Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel at LDF, said in a statement. “That a Black natural hairstyle will inevitably become too ‘messy’ or ‘unkempt’ to be tolerated in the workplace is steeped in impermissible stereotypical thinking. Our federal civil rights laws were specifically designed to root out subtle racially discriminatory practices such as this—neutral policies, proxies, racial stereotypes, all of it.”
Question for the Court: The question that the Justices are being asked to resolve is: “Whether an employer’s reliance on a false racial stereotype to deny a job to an African-American woman is exempt from Title VII’s prohibition on racial discrimination in employment solely because the racial stereotype concerns a characteristic that is not immutable.”
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