Why it matters: Rejecting the contention of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that an employer’s policy prohibiting dreadlocks violated Title VII, a federal district court judge in Alabama dismissed the agency’s complaint. Despite arguments from the EEOC that dreadlocks have cultural and historical significance to African-Americans, the court wrote that “culture and race are two distinct concepts.” Hairstyles are mutable characteristics, the court explained, even styles more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, leaving them outside the protections of Title VII.

Detailed Discussion

Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) had a written grooming policy that stated: “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 . . . hairstyles should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable . . . ”

According to the EEOC, CMS made an offer of employment to Chastity C. Jones on the condition that she cut off her dreadlocks. When Jones declined, the company withdrew its offer. The agency filed suit alleging CMS engaged in intentional race discrimination in violation of Title VII.

CMS defended its actions, arguing that the policy was based on a mutable characteristic – hairstyle – and therefore not racially discriminatory.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Butler, Jr., agreed.

“[T]he outcome here is clear,” he wrote. “The EEOC asserts that the policy itself was discriminatory because it was interpreted to prohibit dreadlocks, which is a hairstyle. Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics, such as race, sex, color, or national origin. A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.”

Judge Butler rejected the agency’s contention that a hairstyle can be a determinant of racial identity, citing similar decisions refusing to apply Title VII to grooming policies from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and federal district courts in Alabama, Georgia, and New York.

The EEOC’s definition of race – encompassing both physical and cultural characteristics, even when the cultural characteristics are not unique to a particular group – would lead to “absurd results,” the court said. For example, a policy prohibiting dreadlocks would not apply to African Americans but would apply to whites, Judge Butler wrote.

Eliminating the immutable versus mutable distinction to allow the protection of certain traits would contravene Title VII itself, he added, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of ‘race, color, religion, sex, or national origin’ and not on the basis of ‘traits.’ ”

The court also declined to let the EEOC present expert testimony or develop additional facts prior to dismissal to establish that the wearing of dreadlocks has sociocultural racial significance for African Americans. “[A] hairstyle is not inevitable and immutable just because it is a reasonable result of hair texture, which is an immutable characteristic,” the court said. “No amount of expert testimony can change the fact that dreadlocks is a hairstyle. . . . Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on traits, even a trait that has socio-cultural racial significance.”

To read the opinion in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, click here.