Recently, the Eighth Circuit joined other circuits in permitting a plaintiff claiming sex discrimination based on gender stereotypes to show that the discrimination occurred “because of” sex, rather than requiring that the plaintiff show relative treatment of different groups within the workplace. Lewis v. Heartland Inns of Am. LLC d/b/a Heartland Inn Ankeny, 591 F.3d 1033 (8th Cir. 2010). The Eighth Circuit held that a female hotel employee who was terminated after a company executive criticized her “masculine” appearance may maintain her sex discrimination claim.

Factual Background

The plaintiff, Brenna Lewis, was an employee of Heartland Inns. After holding several different guest services positions, Lewis was offered a full-time position as a front desk representative on the day shift. The company’s director of operations, Barbara Cullinan, approved the offer over the telephone after receiving a positive recommendation from Lewis’ supervisor. Lewis accepted the offer and took over the job.

A few weeks later, Cullinan saw Lewis for the first time. She immediately raised concerns about Lewis’ appearance, saying she was not sure Lewis was a “good fit” for the front desk and that Lewis lacked the “Midwestern girl look.” Lewis had short hair, typically wore loose, men’s-style clothing, and describes herself as “slightly more masculine.”

Cullinan ordered Lewis’ supervisor to move Lewis back to the night shift. When the supervisor refused, Cullinan forced her to resign. At the same time, Heartland informed its managers that hiring for the front desk position would now require a second interview, and purchased video equipment to enable Cullinan or Human Resources to see a candidate before extending an offer. On other occasions, Cullinan indicated that hotel staff should be “pretty,” particularly women working at the front desk.

About a month after Lewis began the new job, Cullinan informed her that a second interview was necessary in order to “confirm/endorse” the new daytime position. Lewis raised concerns about whether the interview was lawful, asked Cullinan about the “Midwestern girl look” comment, and expressed her view that the interview was because of her appearance. Three days later, Lewis was fired. The termination letter stated that Lewis had thwarted interview procedure and exhibited hostility toward Heartland’s recent policies.

Lewis sued Heartland Inns, Cullinan, and Heartland’s Human Resources Director in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Lewis alleged that Heartland terminated her for not conforming to sex stereotypes, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965. The district court granted summary judgment to Heartland.

Eighth Circuit’s Decision

The question before the Eighth Circuit was whether Lewis had presented sufficient evidence of discrimination to defeat summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment because it found that Lewis failed to offer sufficient evidence that she was treated differently than similarly situated males. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, and held that “[c]ompanies may not base employment decisions for jobs such as Lewis’ on sex stereotypes.” The court reversed the district court’s entry of summary judgment and remanded the case for trial.

The Eighth Circuit held that the district court erred in requiring Lewis to offer evidence that similarly situated men were treated differently. Calling this a “mistaken view,” the Eighth Circuit observed that no Supreme Court decision “compel[s] a woman alleging sex discrimination to prove that men were not subjected to the same challenged discriminatory conduct or to show that the discrimination affected anyone other than herself.” In other words, comparative evidence is not the exclusive means by which an inference of discrimination is established.

The court concluded that a reasonable factfinder could find that Cullinan’s requirements that Lewis be “pretty” and have the “Midwestern girl look” were because she is a woman, since the terms “by their nature” apply only to women. Lewis met her burden of showing that the employer actually relied on her gender in making its decision by with evidence of Cullinan’s repeated remarks about Lewis’ appearance and the appearance of female front desk workers and Cullinan’s position as the primary decision maker in Lewis’ termination. In addition, the Eighth Circuit concluded that Lewis offered sufficient evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could find that she was discriminated against because of her sex because “‘an employer who discriminates against women because . . . they do not wear dresses or makeup, is engaging in sex discrimination because the discrimination would not occur but for the victim’s sex.’”

What This Decision Means for Employers

The Eighth Circuit has unequivocally endorsed sex discrimination claims based on gender stereotype discrimination. This means that employers must be diligent in training their managers and hiring personnel that personnel decisions cannot be based upon gender stereotypes. If you require assistance on the implications of this decision on your business, contact Larkin Hoffman’s experienced team of employment attorneys to assist you.