The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently held that a company’s race-neutral grooming policy did not constitute intentional race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rejecting EEOC’s theory, and providing important guidance on the difference between racial and cultural characteristics.

The lawsuit, titled EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, 14-13482, concerned a job applicant whose conditional offer was rescinded because she refused to comply with the company’s demand to cut her dreadlocks in order to conform with the grooming policy. The policy required all personnel 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]airstyles should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable[.]” EEOC sued, claiming that the policy constituted intentional race discrimination under Title VII. The trial court dismissed EEOC’s complaint, and EEOC appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit held that Title VII’s prohibition on intentional discrimination does not protect hairstyles culturally associated with race. Rather, it prohibits intentional discrimination based on immutable traits such as race, color or national origin. By this rationale, the court explained, discrimination based on black hair texture, such as a natural Afro, would violate Title VII. A prohibition on an all-braided hairstyle, however, addresses a mutable choice and does not implicate Title VII’s proscription of intentional race discrimination.

This decision offers an important exploration of the definition of “race,” which is not defined in Title VII. EEOC relied on its Compliance Manual definition, which provides that “Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against a person because of cultural characteristics often linked to race or ethnicity, such as a person’s name, cultural dress and grooming practices, or accent or manner of speech.” The court chose not to give this guidance much deference or weight in its analysis because the court found the guidance to be contradictory to a position taken by EEOC in an earlier administrative appeal.

The court also rejected many of EEOC’s arguments on appeal as based on concepts of disparate impact discrimination, which lacks a requirement of discriminatory intent. The court emphasized that the distinction between disparate impact and disparate treatment (intentional discrimination) “matters because the two theories are not interchangeable, and ‘courts must be careful to distinguish between the[m.]’” The court criticized EEOC for “conflating” the two theories, and rejected EEOC’s argument that a recent Supreme Court case involving pregnancy discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc.) provided support for reliance on disparate impact theories to demonstrate liability in a disparate treatment case.

Turning to precedent within the circuit and in other jurisdictions, as well as an exploration of the definition of “race” generally, the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that the concept of “race” is a very broad and ever-changing concept. Ultimately, however, the court declined to expand the interpretation of Title VII by eliminating the biological conception of “race” and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race. It opined that such revisions to the definition would be best achieved through the democratic process.

This opinion offers fresh insight into the question of employer grooming policies and other policies that may implicate characteristics of an individual’s race or other Title VII-protected category which are not "immutable." Employers should carefully analyze this decision for its impact on their current policies and pending litigation or charges, especially in the Eleventh Circuit.