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Employers Can Ban Dreadlocks, 11th Cir. Rules

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 22, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Does a prohibition on employee dreadlocks amount to racial discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act? Not according to the Eleventh Circuit. Though dreads may be closely associated with African American race and culture, a ban on the hairstyle doesn't amount to racial discrimination, the court ruled last Thursday.

The ruling came after the EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of Chastity Jones, an applicant who was offered a job at a customer service call center, on the condition that she chop off her dreadlocks.

A Dreadful Ban

After Jones complained, the EEOC took action against Catastrophe Management Solutions, the insurance claims processing and customer support company with the dreadlock ban. CMS's grooming policy at the time stated that:

All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines ... [H]airstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable[.]

Relying on that ostensibly race-neutral language to prohibit dreadlocks, the EEOC argued, was racially discriminatory, since dreadlocks are "culturally associated" with black persons and "a racial characteristic, just as skin color is a racial characteristic." The Eleventh summarized the EEOC's arguments thusly:

The arguments, which build on each other, are that dreadlocks are a natural outgrowth of the immutable trait of black hair texture; that the dreadlocks hairstyle is directly associated with the immutable trait of race; that dreadlocks can be a symbolic expression of racial pride; and that targeting dreadlocks as a basis for employment can be a form of racial stereotyping.

But an Immutable Characteristic?

The Eleventh Circuit flatly rejected the EEOC's logic. Even if dreadlocks are a racial characteristic, a conclusion the court seemed highly skeptical of, the EEOC did not allege that dreadlocks were "an immutable characteristic of black persons." And immutability was key, as precedent holds that "Title VI prohibits discrimination based on immutable traits," according to the Eleventh.

Further, the EEOC's case relied on a disparate treatment theory of discrimination, the Eleventh noted. Disparate treatment claims under Title VII require a showing that an employer intentionally discriminated against an employee. Disparate impact claims do not require that discriminatory intent. By relying on the former, while disclaiming the latter, the EEOC was required to plead sufficient factual allegations to demonstrate discriminatory intent. It did not, the Eleventh ruled.

The Eleventh is not exactly alone in its ruling that hairstyles, even those closely associated with a particular race, are not protected under Title VII. The court cites two circuit court decisions and seven district court decisions that came to a similar determination, concluding that, "as far as we can tell, every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race."

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