Enforcing a race-neutral grooming policy that prohibits employees from wearing dreadlocks is not intentional racial discrimination under Title VII.  That is what the Eleventh Circuit recently held in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, — F.3d —, No. 14-13482, 2016 WL 4916851 (11th Cir. Sept. 15, 2016).

Chastity Jones, a black woman with short dreadlocks, was hired for a customer service position with Catastrophe Management Solutions (“CMS”).  She subsequently met with CMS’s human resources manager, Jeannie Wilson (who is white), in private to discuss scheduling required pre-employment lab tests.  During the meeting, Ms. Wilson asked Ms. Jones if she had dreadlocks.  Ms. Jones said yes, and Ms. Wilson advised her that CMS could not hire her with the dreadlocks.  Ms. Wilson told Ms. Jones that dreadlocks “tend to get messy,” thought she did not say Ms. Jones’s dreadlocks were.  CMS’s race-neutral grooming policy required all personnel to dress and groom “in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines.”  The policy also stated that “hairstyle should reflect a business/professional image,” and that “no excessive hairstyles” would be permitted.

The EEOC filed suit, alleging disparate treatment under Title VII.  According to the EEOC, dreadlocks are “a manner of wearing hair that is common for black people and suitable for black hair texture.  Dreadlocks are formed in a black person’s hair naturally, without any manipulation, or by manual manipulation of hair into larger coils.”  The Court characterized many of the EEOC’s allegations as legal conclusions about the concept of race.  For example, the EEOC alleged that “race is a social construct [with] no biological definition”; that “the concept of race is not limited to or defined by immutable physical characteristics”; that the “concept of race encompasses cultural characteristics related to race or ethnicity, [including] grooming practices”; and that “dreadlocks are . . . a racial characteristic, just as skin color is a racial characteristic.”  According to the EEOC, prohibiting “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.”  Thus, “the decision of CMS to interpret its race-neutral written grooming policy to ban the wearing of dreadlocks constitutes an employment practice that discriminates on the basis of race.” 

 The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim for relief.  In so doing, the district court concluded that “[a] hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.”  EEOC. v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Sols., 11 F. Supp. 3d 1139, 1143 (S.D. Ala. 2014).  On appeal, the EEOC argued 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.”  Most significantly for the Eleventh Circuit, the EEOC’s “proposed amended complaint did not allege that dreadlocks are an immutable characteristic of black persons.”  In fact, the EEOC stated that “black persons choose to wear dreadlocks because that hairstyle is historically, physiologically, and culturally associated with their race.”

In order to decide the case, the Court needed to define the term “race.”  After noting that Title VII does not define the term, the Court concluded that, at the time Title VII was enacted,

‘race’ as a matter of language and usage, referred to common physical characterizes shared by a group of people and transmitted by their ancestors over time.  Although the period dictionaries did not use the word ‘immutable’ to describe such common characterizes, it is not much of a linguistic stretch to think that such characterizes are a matter of birth, and not culture.

Based on its understanding of the meaning of the word “race” at the time Title VII was enacted, and relying on two binding Fifth Circuit cases, the Court concluded that “Title VII protects persons in covered categories with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.”  Indeed, “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.”  And even if dreadlocks are a “‘natural outgrowth’ of the texture of black hair[, that] does not make them an immutable characteristic of race.”

 The Court was careful not to “take a stand on any side of [the] debate” with respect to the “role and complexity of race in our society.”  That debate, the Court concluded, is best “resolve[d] thought the democratic process.”  Nonetheless, the Court’s discussion on the topic—and its impact on Title VII litigation—is likely to spark debate and could potentially lead to a new approach by the EEOC in similar cases.  For now, the take away for employers is this: enforcing a race-neutral grooming policy that prohibits employees from wearing dreadlocks is not intentional racial discrimination under Title VII.  Employers should keep in mind, however, that a race-neutral grooming policy enforced in a manner that selectively targets members of a particular race can lead to liability under Title VII.