Catastrophe Management Services, a customer service support company, had a dress code. This dress code 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. Hairstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.” When Chastity Jones was hired, she was told that she would have to cut off her dreadlocks before beginning employment. Ms. Jones refused; her offer of employment was rescinded.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) brought suit against Catastrophe on her behalf for race discrimination. Ms. Jones was African-American. In its complaint, the EEOC argued that this ban on dreadlocks, which are culturally associated with black people, operated as a proxy for race discrimination. It should be noted that the EEOC did not include an argument under a “disparate impact” theory, which would have allowed the court to determine whether the grooming policy had a disproportionate impact on black employees.
Based on the theory it had before it, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Catastrophe did not intentionally discriminate against Ms. Jones via its hair policy. In reaching this conclusion, the Court stated that racial discrimination protection is limited to characteristics that may not be changed. A “black hairstyle” was not an immutable characteristic and thus not entitled to Title VII protection. The court refused to interpret Title VII more expansively by “eliminating the biological conception of race and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race.” The case was dismissed.