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Dreadlocks? Can an Employer Say Off With Her Hair?

Yes! In EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16918 (11th Cir. 2016), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employer could lawfully refuse to hire an African American female who refused to cut her dreadlocks to comply with the employer’s race-neutral grooming policy.

In 2010, Chastity Jones, an African American female with dreadlocks applied for a customer service support position in Mobile, Alabama with Catastrophe Management Solutions (“CMS”).  After an interview, a CMS Human Resources representative told Ms. Jones she was hired, but she would have to complete new hire paperwork and lab work.  The HR representative then asked Ms. Jones if she was wearing dreadlocks in her hair.  Upon Ms. Jones responding that she was, the HR Representative told Ms. Jones CMS could not hire her “with the dreadlocks” and she would have to cut them off.  Ms. Jones refused and the HR Representative told her CMS could not hire her.

Ultimately, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal watch dog tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, filed a lawsuit on Ms. Jones’s behalf on the basis of race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.  The District Court dismissed the complaint finding the EEOC failed to state a viable claim, and the EEOC appealed.  The Eleventh Circuit (the Court of Appeals which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia) affirmed the lower court.

In reaching its holding, the Court of Appeals analyzed the definition of race which is not defined in Title VII.  Ultimately, it found Title VII protects persons in covered categories with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.  It explained “[s]o, for example, 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.”

For employers, this case serves as a good reminder to review your dress code policies to ensure they are race neutral and do not implicate any immutable characteristics.  Dress code policies also should leave room to make accommodations for religious beliefs and/or accommodations for workers with disabilities.  For instance, a policy that will not allow modification to a uniform for religious beliefs would be unlawful.  On the other hand, if your policy is neutral but impacts cultural practices (like dreadlocks) employers have options.  In the latter case, seek counsel and make an informed decision.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.